Used correctly, social media can be a very powerful tool for the airline industry – but it can also be a tool of chastisement
In this social media age we’re constantly bombarded with alerts and messages from companies about the latest offer, product or service – and the airline industry is no exception. So, being masters of the Internet and social media, they should be brilliant at keeping customers informed at times of disruption, shouldn’t they?
Not if the recent experience of a colleague flying to Spain on a well-known low-cost airline during a recent French air traffic control strike is anything to go by. Nigel (not his real name) is not a Facebook enthusiast but he does use email, and he can and does read emails on his mobile phone. On the morning of his flight, there was nothing from the airline, other than the usual torrent of marketing emails; only when he got to Gatwick airport, after an expensive taxi ride from his home 60 miles away, did he find out that his flight had been cancelled.
“You would have thought that, in this day and age, it would have been possible to send an email out warning that there were problems. Even one to say that there might have been problems would have been helpful – but there was nothing at all.”
Melissa Gannaway, an outreach executive at media company Glass Digital, was on a recent Ryanair flight coming back from Oslo, Norway that was evacuated due to a bomb scare. (Two people were overheard arguing in the toilets and someone thought they heard the word ‘bomb’ mentioned.)
However, she said that it was through Twitter, not the official airline channels, that the passengers found out what was happening and that a bomb disposal team was en route. The lack of proper information “of course made us all think that there was an actual bomb on board so it actually made the situation worse because this tweet (from a local journalist) was the only thing we heard at the time”, she says. All Ryanair staff would say was that there were ‘operational difficulties’.
The aviation industry is perhaps slowly getting to grips with the challenges and opportunities presented by social media, but its record is still patchy. There are examples of both good and bad practice. Also, social media, by its nature, cannot be controlled. It has removed the luxury of time in which to formulate a response; passengers will know as quickly as the airline (if not more quickly) when something has gone wrong.
As Paul Buckley, head of social at Irish airline Aer Lingus points out, ordinary people who are close to a situation as it develops will often be the first ones to publish information – and words, pictures and videos can be shared extensively. This can put airlines on the back foot. They themselves need to ensure that the information they publish on their own channels is 100% accurate, and this can sometimes take a few minutes to verify.
Buckley is philosophical about so-called Twitter storms. “Criticism will always be aired on social media. With the best will in the world, no organisation is immune to it. The key to minimising the negative effects of criticism and protecting the brand is to react quickly and effectively to negative comments. This way, the organisation is demonstrating that the customer is being listened to and understood.”
He adds that it’s important not only to say sorry, but to give social media responders the tools for service recovery that can restore customer confidence in the brand.
The aviation industry has given some thought on how to use Twitter and other social media when major disasters strike – crashes or dramatic in-flight emergencies, for example. Airlines do run table-top exercises to work out how social media should be used in the event of a crash or terrorist attack; the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has also produced guidelines, which are regularly updated.
John Bailey, managing director of the Singapore arm of public relations firm Ketchum, says that lessons have been learned. For example, when an A380 suffered an engine fire while airborne, passengers on the stricken plane were able to send out tweets – but ground control was unable to talk to the pilots because the fire had knocked out the aircraft’s communication system. The plane landed safely and nobody died – but not before respected news agency Reuters had run a story about an ‘A380 crash’.
On the same day, the same airline’s marketing department was sending out emails and messages enthusing about the interior of the new A380. This, says Bailey, is symptomatic of the fact that airlines up to this point had regarded social media as mainly a marketing tool. The operational department, if it used social media at all, was clearly operating in a different ‘silo’.
Even less considered by the airlines is how to handle the more mundane problems that can affect travellers – a baggage carousel breaking down, an air traffic controller’s strike or roadworks on the main approach to the airport. But the wider role of social media in coping with the more mundane upsets of air travel has not received anything like as much scrutiny. Bailey says: “I’d say that social media use in the industry is patchy. There has though been a lot of progress, and where the industry doesn’t do it very well, it is probably down to the fact of the way the industry is structured; the commercial and operational sides of the industry are still in different silos.”
But some airlines’ social media presence is now very professional, he adds. His list of carriers that get it right includes, among others, Singapore Airlines, British Airways, Qatar Airways and Emirates.
For example, when Singapore Airways was forced to make an unscheduled landing of an A380 at Baku – an airport where the carrier has no presence of its own, no food available and was unable to let the 400-plus passengers outside the overcrowded terminal because they did not have Azerbaijan visas – it didn’t take long for the social media channels to light up with complaints. But what Singapore Airlines does have is a 24/7 social media team “and one of their key performance indicators is to respond to any tweet within a set time. They were able to explain what was happening, what the cabin crew were doing to help, and it ended up with people tweeting what a great job the crew were doing to help.”
The problem, though, is that many airlines don’t have that full-time social media presence, says Bailey.
Used correctly, social media can be a very powerful tool when things go wrong. In the past, the only way an airline could get in touch with hundreds or thousands of passengers when disruption occurred was to phone them individually – an impossible task, with no guarantees of being able to reach those affected. But social media allows them to send an instant message to any affected passengers.
Paul Buckley at Aer Lingus confirms: “Social is a key communication channel for Aer Lingus. During periods of operational disruption, Twitter is particularly well suited to quickly update a wide audience. Many of our guests see our Twitter channel, more than any other, as the pulse of the organisation and a reference point for the latest information. As such, it’s important for us to update Twitter as soon as any widespread disruption has been confirmed to affect the operation.”
There has been much disruption from striking air traffic controllers in Europe this summer, situations that are notoriously difficult to plan for, but Buckley points out: “Twitter has an important role to play in a fast-changing situation such as an ATC strike. Our updates on Twitter are designed to draw attention to the fact that our schedule has been affected, and to link guests that need to learn more to the relevant page on our website.”
One further problem in the air industry is that it is a web of multi-layered subcontractors. While passengers unable to get their bags after a flight when a baggage system breaks down will most likely blame their airline for not informing them, the problem almost certainly lies with the airport or the airline’s appointed handler – and possibly with yet another sub-subcontractor. Outside their home bases, airlines increasingly do little more than fly the planes.
Bailey says: “One theme we did explore at the recent IATA ground handling conference in Toronto was the importance of ground handlers telling the airline as quickly as possible when something goes wrong. The quicker people know, the quicker they can react. A lot depends on your relationship with ground handlers.” It’s important to think about who is responsible for communicating and how information should be channelled to the customer. Future IATA guidelines, as well as including ground handlers, will also include simple ‘who does what’ rules.
Aer Lingus’s Paul Buckley adds, though: “Airlines need to take full responsibility for updating their customers. This is not to say that other parties, such as airports, don’t have a voice on social media in a given situation. However, in the interest of clarity, it’s important that a single official source of information can be easily identified by customers. Where there are agency partners acting on behalf of the airline – for example, ground handlers – it’s essential for those agencies to communicate internally with the airline, so that the airline channels can be quickly and accurately updated. Airlines can certainly share or re-tweet operational messages from partners if it’s in the interest of the airline’s guests, but access to publish on an airline’s social channels should be closely guarded.”
Of course, it is important to guard against giving a wrong response that then has to be embarrassingly retracted and corrected until the true nature of the situation is understood; it could even be a hoax. “There are certain responses you can give that you are aware of the situation and will let people know as soon as you have more information.”
Some consideration also needs to be given to the systems’ and hardware’s ability to cope with a sudden surge in social media interest. One thing that happened after the recent Brussels Airport attacks is that the mobile phone system crashed though sheer volume of use. (In some cases, the security services may deliberately shut it down.) Internet servers may also be unable to cope with a surge in traffic. “It’s important to check if the system can take the strain, and whether it can be upgraded if need be,” Bailey points out.
Marina Kalika, senior director of product marketing at TouchCommerce, says that airlines, along with other big brands, do a lot of monitoring of social media these days – but they need to reach out more to the consumer.
She says: “Besides monitoring hashtags and listening to social media conversations, it is vital for brands to take action and engage. If consumers are asking questions via social media, consumers expect a response.”
It is also important to have a holistic view of the consumer; for example, CRM (customer relationship management) software should not only contain information about name, phone number and purchase history of a customer, but now also the user names from various social platforms. That allows the brand to reach out to consumers directly (for example via private message on Twitter or FB Messenger) to inform the customer about status updates on their flight or lost luggage. Including the new communication channels into the brand’s channel helps to stay connected with all generations of their customers – particularly the ‘millennials’ – who expect most communications to be sent via their smartphones using some form of text. They don’t want to call, they just want to type and receive an answer.
Marina Kalika explains: “Consumers today want information immediately. Offering proactive information on flight delays, for example instead of waiting till a flood of negative tweets to come in, is a good start. Answers to questions and comments from followers should be timely. Studies show that the majority of social media users expect a brand to answer within one hour or less, depending on the issue they have. If the social media agent is not able to answer more complex questions they should have the opportunity to seamlessly forward the conversation to a customer service representative, and this is where software tools today come into play to help the industry in delivering a more comprehensive digital customer service strategy.”
She adds that TouchCommerce’s new TouchSocial service delivers a personalised online engagement experience for brands and consumers on social networks, by inviting consumers to participate via the company’s website. “So, for example, if a passenger has lost their baggage and has taken to Twitter to express their frustrations, the airline is able to contact the passenger to reassure them via social media, and offer them the chance to seamlessly transition the conversation to their online live chat function on their website. By doing so, it takes the customer from an open forum, to a private conversation”.
Agents are expensive so it makes sense to let a virtual assistant answer simple questions and collect important data upfront before transferring the conversation to a real person, including all the contextual data. Facebook’s chat bots are a good example of how brands can leverage virtual assistants to deliver simple information without the need of a chat agent to be involved. For example, the virtual assistant can submit flight information immediately, especially in time-sensitive scenarios such as switching a plane. They can recommend a flight based on a set of information the user is able to enter during a natural conversation and when it comes to actually booking the journey, they can transfer all the information seamlessly to a live chat agent.
But even though virtual assistants are able to handle a lot more than they could a couple of years ago, they still need support from the human counterpart. “That’s why a seamless transfer to a chat agent, including access to the conversation trail, is important, as it keeps satisfaction up and frustration low,” says Kalika.