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Airlines learning to track social media — and respond quickly

As everyone learned when a passenger was forcibly removed from a United Express flight, social media and the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras have shifted the ground rules for airline customer service. The best and worst corporate interactions speed across the Internet, with potentially dire results for corporate targets of public anger.

For air carriers in particular, “the world changed” last April after the Chicago dragging incident, Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc., said in a June talk at the Wings Club in Manhattan. This new reality is largely the reason so many airlines now staff social media departments around the clock, offering quick service to customers while monitoring Internet chatter for potential trouble, celebrity tweets and video snippets that could go viral.

A survey released Tuesday by customer service firm Conversocial attempts to quantify how large airlines are interacting with the public on Twitter and Facebook. The firm sought to measure how often and how rapidly 20 big carriers respond to Internet posts directed at them-many of which originate from unhappy customers who want the airline to remedy a problem.

Among North American carriers, JetBlue Airways and Virgin America, part of Alaska Air Group, were quickest to respond to Twitter posts-in less than five minutes-while United was the laggard at more than 90 minutes, according to Conversocial, which develops social media management tools.

Of all the Twitter posts directed at North American airlines, American Airlines Group Inc. responded to the largest share, at 32.5 percent. Air Canada reacted to the least amount at 10.3 percent. The vast majority of airline responses relate to customer service issues, although some react to more general complaints and compliments, Conversocial CEO Joshua March said.

The data were compiled from Twitter posts made between Oct. 5 and Oct. 8 aimed at…

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