Dear Julia: I'm a young professional who flies upward of eight times a month -- what the oldsters used to call a "road warrior." Unsurprisingly, I'm addicted to my "CrackBerry," my laptop andiPad are practically fused to my fingers, and I obsessively scroll through Twitter during the inevitable downtime while waiting in TSA security lines or being stuck on the tarmac. I used to fly whichever airline was cheapest, but now, I'm actively searching for one that relates to people like me through social media. I know you fly a lot, too. Who owns the next-gen fliers? -- Up in the Air
Dear Air: Having literally just stepped off a redeye from California to New York, I hear you. In fact, I've both frust-tweeted United about its lack of Wi-Fi ("dear @United, Why don't you have in-air Wi-Fi yet? @VirginAmerica does. I demand answers! Love, Julia") and congra-tweeted them about my unexpected upgrade ("fist bumps in the boarding area! HELL YEAH @United!")
Social media as an avenue to resolve grievances or reward good behavior is nothing new. Most airlines recognize Twitter and Facebook as cheap, effective and easy methods of both informing customers and mitigating public-relations disasters. The question really is: How comfortable are they in their social-media skin?
In an attempt to learn who has the best grasp on this new medium, I interviewed representatives at four of the top domestic airlines: Virgin America, Southwest, JetBlue and United. How do they view social media -- is it a burden or is it exciting? How are they using it in distinct ways? Have they embarked on any program they're particularly proud of? Do they employ a "chief tweeter"?
With fleetwide Wi-Fi, electrical outlets near every seat and more than 230,000 Twitter followers, Virgin America is much like a toddler who instinctively knows how to navigate an iPhone. That is to say: digitally native. "Social media has been part of our DNA since the beginning," spokeswoman Jill Fletcher explains.
How could I tell? She used the social-media buzzwords authenticity, two-way dialogues and real-time and even the term guest instead of customer.
"We pride ourselves on being a tech-savvy airline," Fletcher says, pointing to numerous social-media campaigns, including trivia, fare sales, polling, contests and video content. "We definitely have fun with it."
Social media rewards personality, and Southwest Airlines certainly has no shortage of it. With 1.2 million Twitter followers, chief tweeter Christi McNeill talks of giving the company's "fans a voice and a platform."
It's proactive, not reactive. Southwest's other social-media goals? "Maintain the FUN-LUVing personality," "create outstanding multimedia content" and -- oh, yeah -- "provide critical information during times of crisis." Eighty of the airline's 550 planes are enabled with Wi-Fi, and McNeill says Southwest hopes to turn the entire fleet wireless by 2012.
JetBlue Airways, with the largest Twitter following (more than 1.6 million), views social media as "a savvy two-way street." Spokeswoman Allison Steinberg says, "We love that we can bring a more-playful and informal voice to our brand, while also publishing real-time updates on unfolding events."
As such, JetBlue has created what it calls a Real Time Recovery Team, consisting of a dozen employees who monitor Twitter and are empowered to help customers get what -- and where -- they need. It also plans to launch fleetwide Wi-Fi "in the coming year." (About time!)
United Airlines, with 25,000 followers on Twitter, uses the site to "listen, engage and interact with our customers," says Lora O'Riordan, the company's manager of social-media programs. While not quite as personality-filled as the other brands ("We want to be professional but approachable," they say), United has launched some interesting programs, including Twares -- the highly popular Twitter-only fares -- and Tweetchat, which allowed people to ask questions of pilots and flight attendants in real-time.
Of course, like those of all airlines, the @United account is often used as a 140-character punching bag during high-stress travel. "While weather delays and cancellations aren't our fault, Mother Nature doesn't have aFacebook page or Twitter account," O'Riordan says. "So we take the brunt of the customer frustration."
Maybe Mother Nature needs to hire a chief tweeter of her own.