NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- When a basketball-size hole opened earlier this week in the fuselage of a Southwest plane, which was rerouted and landed safely, Twitter helped the airline manage the story.
Shortly after the plane landed, the tweets began pouring in from those who heard the news: "Emergency landing for a Southwest flight ... A one ft by one ft hole in the fuselage is to blame ... yikes." The incident was documented by those on board via Twitpic and YouTube. The airline's lead "Twitterer," Christi Day, immediately began posting updates that included links to an official company release, a statement that all planes would be inspected overnight and news that all passengers on board would be refunded.
"It was important for us to set the tone as soon as we saw those conversations begin online," Ms. Day said. "We were able to distribute factual information to our customers before they saw it on the 10 p.m. news, which is extremely powerful."
In an industry where customers are as likely to have smooth, hassle-free flights as they are to have to sit through hourlong delays, Twitter can be either a godsend or a curse for an airline. Southwest, which has nearly 290,000 followers, isn't the only carrier using Twitter. A number of others, including JetBlue (885,000 followers), Virgin America (24,000 followers), American Airlines (5,600 followers), United Airlines (16,000 followers) and Delta Air Lines (7,300 followers), are also using it -- some more effectively than others -- for customer service, public relations and crisis management and as a vehicle to promote fare specials.
Travel blogger Chris Elliott said JetBlue and Southwest are the examples others airlines using Twitter should follow. "Both use Twitter as a communications tool, a place to push fare specials," Mr. Elliott said. "But if you follow them, you also get a sense that, on Twitter, they don't take themselves as seriously as they would in a press release or press conference. They do things that are a bit more fun, like linking to posts, that are not as formal."
Growing CRM tool
Abby Lunardini, director of corporate communications at Virgin America, said she views the micro-blogging service as a growing customer-relationship-management tool. "We've had guests tweet about missing food service, and we sent a message to the plane's crew to assist [them]," she said via e-mail. At Virgin America, tweeting is a group effort handled by an interactive marketing team, with help from PR, guest care and marketing groups "as appropriate."
With Wi-Fi access on its planes, Virgin America receives and responds to tweets they get from passengers while in flight. "We got a tweet from someone en route to Boston who said he had been ignored on the flight and had some other service issues," Ms. Lunardini said. "Our team met him at the gate in Boston and asked if we could assist with anything or help him further."
Mr. Elliott said legacy carriers such as Delta and American don't seem to have figured out Twitter just yet. American just launched its Twitter page on April 13.
Chris Vary, director of emerging media at American Airlines and its head Twitterer, said the airline is being proactive and reactive on Twitter, using it to announce events and fare sales while listening to what consumers and the media are saying about the airline. Asked if he thought it was fair to say American hasn't figured out Twitter yet he said, "We are putting our best foot forward now and using these channels the best we can to help communicate, listen and monitor. It's still a learning lab."
Mr. Elliott said he's been following Delta since the beginning and hasn't seen a lot of activity on its Twitter page; the last post Delta made was on June 17. But in the past two days, the airline has been getting knocked around in the Twitterverse over a couple of issues, including a somewhat laughable debate over its newly designed stewardess dresses, which only go up to a size 18. (Sample comment: "Delta wants curvy flight attendants to wear the old uniforms while girls to size 18 fly high in their red hot new dress.")
Delta takes a bruising
On the more serious matter of customer service, the airline took a bit of a bruising yesterday on Twitter, following a letter Andy Azula, the creative director at the Martin Agency and the actor in the UPS Whiteboard commercials, wrote to Delta that he posted on his blog and linked to on his Twitter page (he has since taken it down). Apparently Delta delayed Mr. Azula's flight, keeping him and his family waiting at the airport for 13 hours and causing him to miss a number of meetings and a family gathering. The airline didn't offer any type of compensation in the end. Not only did the link get re-tweeted dozens of times, but people started adding their own commentary, such as "Yep. Delta Airlines is screwed if they don't rectify this." The airline did not tweet any type of reply.
When asked to comment for this story, Delta responded via e-mail, saying it is "actively involved in the development of our social-media policies for this growing medium. We will align our social-media strategy to be in sync with our other communication vehicles for the benefit of our customers and employees."
Mr. Elliott said it's a mistake for Delta to not participate in the conversation, especially when there are so many negative comments being posted.
"If you put yourself out there and don't participate, you can damage your brand, because there's a perception you don't get it and haven't taken the time to learn this new medium," Mr. Elliott said. "And people will start wondering: If they don't get it in social media, where else don't they get it? And that opens yourself up to a lot of unpleasant possibilities."