The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

CNHI News Service Originals

April 8, 2014

Travelers fly on Air Twitter

The drama starring Marybeth Cadotte and United unfolded like a serial e-novel.

The Pittsburgh traveler, trapped on a plane beset with mechanical problems, opened the scene with the first lines of tweetologue.

"Stuck on the plane in Pittsburgh. Let's get it together @united," she wrote to the carrier's Twitter account March 21. "Let's fix the planes before u load them with people! We need flaps to fly."

United, humble and contrite, replied with an apology for the delay, adding optimistically:

"We hope to have you on your way soon."

A happy ending seemed imminent when Cadotte reported the arrival of a mechanic.

"Fingers crossed I make my connection in Denver!"

After a short intermission, Cadotte was back, indulging in a burger and a Bloody Mary in the Pittsburgh airport. In her final tweet to the airline that day, either the vodka had commandeered the keyboard or the fruitful exchange had cheered her mood.

"Shout out to cust service twitter @united!" she typed. "Still on my crazy journey but you pulled thru for me!"

Cadotte had relied on Twitter to communicate with the carrier, a savvy decision, especially considering her situation. Through frequent messages, United's social media team could track her case and, when her disabled plane returned to the gate, arrange a new reservation. Even better: She could take the express route to the bar, bypassing the long line of passengers waiting to rebook and avoiding the overburdened call service and the squirrelly airline app.

"There were 200 people from my plane trying to be rebooked with the gate attendant," she said, when I contacted her post-trip. "The United app crashed, and people were on their phones talking to United. Twitter was definitely the way to go."

The enlightened age of social media has dawned over the airline industry, casting shadows over telephone call centers and on-site agents. Facebook and Twitter are racking up the friends and followers while the hold music plays on.

"The airlines are using social media like they are using the phone, for one-to-one issue resolution," said Ragy Thomas, chief executive of Sprinklr, a social media technology provider. "It's unrivaled in its efficiency."

Over the past few years, most major and minor carriers have established a presence on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to YouTube and Instagram.United and KLM started dabbling in the alternative medium in 2009 before fully committing a year or two later. Delta unveiled @DeltaAssist in 2006. Emirates is the kid brother racing to catch up. The Dubai company unveiled its handle March 25 and had sent out 17 tweets by the end of its first week on Planet Twitter.

Two events cemented the union between airlines and social media. During the mega-snowstorm of February 2007, the chief executive of JetBlue spoke to affected and frustrated passengers via YouTube. Three years later, the Icelandic volcano erupted, creating havoc over Europe's skies. Overwhelmed with calls and queries, KLM turned to Facebook and Twitter to reach more eyes. Today, the Dutch carrier employs 135 social media agents who are available 24 hours a day and fluent in 10 languages.

"The airline industry is a front-runner in the adoption of social media," said Raymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, "as it allows travelers in transit to get in touch with their airline in a much easier way. And, more importantly, social media has provided customers with a magnified voice that can have a huge impact on an airline's reputation."

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