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Problem with your airline? Tweet at it

  • Hilary Sargent
By Hilary Sargent

Quartz contributor

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Want to know if your flight is delayed by a snowstorm? Why your seat assignment mysteriously changed? Why the cookies you enjoyed aboard your last flight aren’t available this time? Your best bet may be to head over to Twitter. While tweeting at most businesses may feel like screaming into an endless void, tweets at an airline are pretty likely to generate a response—even a helpful one.

You may discover your flight is delayed due to air traffic congestion; or that your seat assignment problem can be sorted out with a quick DM exchange. Just want to complain about how outdated your plane is? Go right ahead.

Tweets directed at airlines display the full range of human emotions: rage, frustration, confusion, and—yes—occasionally, joy. “We get more compliments through Twitter than complaints,” says Michelle Mohr, managing director of operations and communications for American Airlines. Mohr oversees American’s social-media team, which is comprised of  “a few dozen” individuals.” Her team is based in Fort Worth, Texas, where they monitor Twitter for customer-related issues 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

If you think your tweet raving about a flight crew—or complaining about one—is falling on deaf ears, think again. “If it’s a compliment, we share that feedback with everyone who has touched that flight so they are recognized,” Mohr says. “And on the flip side, if there’s a complaint, we share that as well.”

What about the tweets that truly don’t seem constructive? “If someone says, ‘Hey, you guys suck,’ we might ask ‘What’s going on? What’s bothering you?” Mohr says.

When it comes to customer service on social-media platforms, Mohr says American is focused on Twitter as the platform people use to air grievances. “Twitter is largely where people look to get help in real time,” she says. Weather often prompts a surge in activity, says Mohr, citing the snowstorms that blanketed the east coast earlier this week. “Given all the weather we are having this week, we have a heavier than normal volume coming in.”

On normal days, Mohr estimates the American team sifts through approximately 4,500 tweets. Not all receive a response, but many do. According to the Conversocial Airline Benchmark Report, American leads the way in the percentage of tweets that earn a reply. The report states that American responds to 32.5% of tweets directed at the airline’s Twitter handle.

American is also a leader in response time. The airline responds in under one hour 99.5% of the time, according to Conversocial. (The only airline with a slightly faster response time is Virgin Atlantic, which responds under one hour 99.9% of the time, according to the report, which is based on data collected during the fall of 2017.)

The fact that airlines have taken to responding to customers with such frequency—and speed—may be due, in part, to research focused on the airline industry, and published by Twitter itself, in 2015. “Customers who received replies from airlines on Twitter were more satisfied with their experience, more willing to recommend the airline, and willing to pay more money for a ticket for that airline in the future,” the research found. “On top of that, the faster the airline responded to a Tweet, the more customers were willing to pay.”

In the years since that research was published, the role of social media has expanded, and airlines have been made increasingly aware of just what kind of power a single tweet can have. In 2017, a customer service issue turned into a public relations debacle when a video was posted on social media showing a passenger being forcibly removed from a plane after the flight was overbooked.

The lesson United learned the hard way was that in an era when virtually everyone has a video camera, even the most routine customer service issues can quickly turn into viral Internet content. Social-media teams are increasingly likely to be the first airline employees who become aware of these situations, and they are increasingly on the lookout for them, according to SimplyFlying’s 2018 Airline Social Media Outlook report, in which respondents said that social-media teams are increasingly focused on crisis communications in addition to customer service.

Every airline does social media a bit differently. Spirit Airlines is all about taking care of customer service complaints and issues via direct message. Both Virgin Atlantic and United replies generally include the name of the person who tweeted. They also include the initials of the person responding. Southwest takes it a bit further, including the first name of the social-media team member who replies. On Thursday, Valentine’s Day, JetBlue replied to many customers with conversation hearts, of the airline-customer-service variety.

When it comes to Twitter, airlines largely seem to understand what many companies don’t—that sometimes, the best response is no response, and that other times, the best response is to be funny. Tweet a GIF at Virgin Atlantic and you may just get a GIF in response. Call out American for its planes being out of date and they won’t argue the point.

But if you’re not just tweeting to blow off steam—if you truly want something in exchange for your tweet other than GIF or pleasantries—here’s what to do:

When tweeting at an airline, the number one rule is to remember to include the airline’s Twitter handle. It may seem obvious, but people often forget to do this. Hashtags also won’t ensure your tweet is seen. So, #HEYDELTAISMYFLIGHTDELAYED probably isn’t the way to go. “Tagged tweets are what comes through,” Mohr agrees.

Beyond tagging your tweet properly, Mohr recommends you give her social-media team something to work with. “A really good rule of thumb is, be specific with what you want,” says Mohr. “It makes it that much easier for us to get back to you.”

Chris Mainz, senior manager of public relations for Southwest Airlines, also recommends specificity. Sending a private message (via either Facebook or Twitter) enables the customer to include their personal-travel information on their initial inquiry, making the whole process move forward more quickly, says Mainz. “That’s one less back and forth and one step closer to resolution for both parties,” says Mainz.

Mainz also recommends searching to see if someone else has already asked the same question on Southwest’s community forums—which cover a wide range of topics like “Item left on plane” and “Traveling with frozen milk.”

If all else fails, and you’re fed up, and truly feel the need to tell an airline that they suck, be specific about the way in which you believe they suck! Maybe this felt good to tweet, but it didn’t seem to generate a reply. But this tweet—also about United sucking—offers more specificity and, as a result, gets a response.

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