Tweet Relief for Travelers

Twitter for Travelers

Roberto Araujo

When a flight is canceled, bags are lost or a storm is brewing, you could wait in line for hours or spend the day on hold to customer service. Or you could turn to Twitter and be on your way far faster.

Increasingly, travelers are turning to Twitter to seek help, vent their frustrations or document delays in 140 characters or less. Twitter's short, sharp updates and comments can pull quite a punch when let loose online. We spoke to travelers who have tweeted their way out of tricky travel situations -- and the airlines that tweet to make travel smoother for their customers and themselves.

One young couple had their honeymoon halted as a result of an Expedia rep misinforming them about Russian visa regulations. When Bethany Thomas of Maine wrote on her blog, Rules for Anchorites, about the "levels of awful" the couple were suffering stranded in Frankfurt with just a $100 hotel voucher as recompense for the ruined trip, her hundreds of readers peppered social networking site Twitter with messages asking for emails and calls to Expedia. The result was a refund, visa costs and a $3,000 travel voucher.

While it seems that persistence and online popularity pays off, it's not always necessary to take such a bullish approach. Joseph Salvo of Madison, Wisconsin, mentioned his woes with Frontier Airlines on Twitter. "After tweeting about a bad experience with Frontier, V.P. Daniel Shurz contacted me to see how he could make things better," he says. "A couple months later I tweeted about a canceled flight I had on New Year's Eve, and he again showed his concern." Although Shurz was unable to find an alternative flight for the would-be traveler, Salvo says, "It really meant a lot to have a V.P. take the time to contact an average Joe like myself. He wasn't able to directly help me out, but he did convince me to give Frontier another chance after my bad experience a few months back."

Frontier is just one of the airlines that actively searches out conversations going on about them on Twitter, instead of waiting for a problem to come to them. Jill Okawa Fletcher, Social Media & Communications Manager for Virgin America says, "We use a Social Media Listening and Engagement Tool called Sprinklr to monitor social media posts about our brand and reach out to guests needing assistance." Christi McNeil, Emerging Media Strategist for Southwest Airlines says, "Any tweets that include @southwestair show on our tracking tools. We use a lot of different technologies to watch conversations, by name or by keywords. If we know there's a weather storm heading for Boston, we'll search keyword 'Boston' to see what people are saying about the situation. We try and respond to people who communicate with us on our own stream -- that's our high priority, but we monitor other conversations as well."

Brands are eager to avoid the dreaded #FAIL tag that accompanies the most irate of tweets. Roberto Araujo of Silicon Valley, California, took the "fail-tagging" to new levels when he found fault with American Airlines' customer service after a flight from Gainesville, Florida, to Atlanta. "I still had two hours left in the airport and a WiFi signal," he says. The public relations graduate made use of the time and the WiFi connection, tweeting, "From this point forward every tweet I send will include @americanair #FAIL until someone responds." He followed this up with a barrage of unrelated updates such as "Today I was reminded why I never use a conventional shaver... ouch! @americanair #FAIL." A week later, Araujo settled his grievances with American in return for an $800 travel voucher.

Surprisingly, the domain name was only bought in August 2006 and launched as Twitter in March 2007. Fast forward just under four years and this social media upstart boasts more than 175 million accounts - increasing by hundreds of thousands a day. However, according to a 2010 survey by Edison Research, 82% of Twitter users have less than 350 "followers", as those who have opted to read a person or company's feed are called, and only approximately 7% of Americans used Twitter, compared to 41% who have Facebook profiles. Unlike the highly interactive Facebook, 53% of Twitter users do not post updates, instead opting to read, watch and gather news through feeds. With this very public medium, anyone can eavesdrop on a thousand conversations and jump to judgment. The very public aspect of Twitter explains the swift response many airlines and hotel companies have to negative comments. While bad press may get more press, McNeil of Southwest says, "A lot of companies are nervous at the start, thinking people are going to complain, but we've found it much harder to keep up with the fans who love us and want to have a conversation with us."

So how exactly do airlines use Twitter? In addition to sharing deals and news of weather delays, McNeil says, "We're finding that a lot of our customers want to share their questions and concerns over Twitter. It also functions as an early alert to different operational issues that we haven't been alerted about yet and allows us to fix customer relations issues in a timely manner. We've now got a million field reporters sending back news of what's going on in the various cities we service." She continues, "For the most part we're dealing with something different every day, depending on what operations issues arise. One of the big trends I'm seeing right now is people leaving their iPad in the seatback pocket. I'm seeing it at least twice a week. A few times we've tracked one down and gotten it back to the owner right away."

This real-time response is one of the things that Twitter users love. Jill Okawa Fletcher of Virgin America -- the first airline to offer fleet-wide WiFi, adds, "We've attracted very tech- and social media-savvy guests, who are oftentimes tweeting or Facebooking in-flight. Having in-flight WiFi available means we're oftentimes able to receive and respond to feedback in real time. If a guest has a complaint or a question, we have examples where we've been able to address the problem or answer the question while the guest was still in-flight." She cites a recent situation where a traveler was helped to find the three-pin plug socket under her seat mid-flight.

But does it matter if you have 50,000 followers or under 10? Southwest Airlines says no. "Typically we're moving so quickly on our team, that the high priority is getting each comment answered. It would be an afterthought to see how many followers someone has or what blog they write."

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