Airline PR Gets Outsourced to Twitter

The next time you’re stuck at the airport thanks to a wicked Nor’easter, Twitter just might be your ticket to the next flight home. Reporting for NY Times yesterday, Kim Severson explains how stranded travelers are turning to Twitter to get valuable help while skipping the hours-long wait in lines or on the airline's hotline:

While the airlines' reservation lines required hours of waiting -- if people could get through at all -- savvy travelers were able to book new reservations, get flight information, and track lost luggage... Since Monday, nine Delta Air Lines agents with special Twitter training have been rotating shifts to help travelers wired enough to know how to "DM," or direct message. Many other airlines are doing the same as a way to help travelers cut through the confusion of a storm that has grounded thousands of flights this week.

The article highlights the experience of one traveler, Danielle Heming, who’s flight home was canceled after a five-hour delay earlier this week. Rather than linger in long lines and deal with overwhelmed JetBlue agents, she pulled out her iPhone, did some quick flight availability research, and sent a message to JetBlue’s Twitter account. “Within an hour,” reports Severson, “she had a seat on another airline and a refund from JetBlue.”

Not everyone who DM’d the airline’s Twitter sought to find new flights or tickets. Many frustrated travelers simply used this digital outlet to vent their anger. In fact, more often than finding new seats for a customer, a customer service agent’s role is simply “to listen to people complain.” In many cases, Twitter provided a forum for people to commiserate with each other in a truly 21st-century form of digital therapy. Other stranded travelers viewed the airlines’ Twitter channels as a quicker, more efficient source of updated information from digital PR reps.

Switching PR to Twitter has surely has its downfalls. For one thing, it’s tough to arrange a full new itinerary between a representative and a customer within the confines of 140 characters. Also, says Severson, these Twitter reps aren’t necessarily ticketing agents, so there’s no guarantee they’ll have access to the latest flight information and seats. And airlines have only a handful of PR reps working Twitter -- compared to thousands on the phones --  so customers might enjoy better success using conventional communication methods.

Perhaps most importantly, Twitter remains “the domain of elite activist customers,” explains Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet and Life Project. Only 8 percent of people with access to Internet use Twitter, so the number of travelers who use the microblogging service pales in comparison to those who would rather stand in line or call in to the airline. The Digital Divide also comes into play. This new, more efficient form of customer service leaves the less tech-savvy travelers behind with the long lines and annoying “hold” music on the phone.

This week’s East Coast storm stranded hundreds of thousands of passengers, but thanks to Twitter, fewer travelers were isolated from access to flight information, replacement tickets, and lost baggage. But as is often the case with new media, Twitter isn’t a save-all panacea, and it alone isn’t going to transform the way airports deal with delays. Traditional forms of communication, like booking a ticket over the phone or at the airline counter, will continue to serve a significant portion of the public. But for that small (but growing) Twitter-savvy 8 percent, new media and mobile phones provide a new level of convenience and efficiency at the airport that musn’t be ignored.