Airlines, Twitter and Customer Service / by A Tramp Abroad

Airplane
Airplane

A few weeks ago Travel Rants published a piece called Airlines Helpline Telephone Rip Offs. It rightly criticized some of the airlines for charging exorbitant fees for customers who sought assistance over the telephone. Citing research by Travel Supermarket, they noted that the most expensive airlines to call are BMI Baby at £0.65 per minute and RyanAir at £1.00 per minute.

Although there are now other platforms to contact an airline to seek help, like Twitter, the author of the article laments: "I have found ... that companies have jumped on the bandwagon just because it is seen as a cool thing to be part of. Trying to contact airlines and travel companies on the likes of Twitter and Facebook is a waste of time."

This got us thinking: how are the major airlines really using Twitter? Is it a viable customer service channel for those people who are trying to avoid the large surcharges for a phone call? How quickly can one expect a response through Twitter? Which airlines don't bother to respond at all?

We decided to conduct a highly unscientific study over a 24 hour period of time from our A Tramp Abroad Twitter account. We asked 15 major airlines with a Twitter presence the following question by @ them:

We're doing a survey - do you generally respond to customer inquiries received on Twitter? Average response time?

We asked the question at approximately the same time - 5:30 pm Mountain Time (we are currently in Mexico) and gave the airlines 24 hours to respond. There didn't seem a point to prolonging the allowed response time because most customers who are looking for service need help fairly quickly. If Twitter is to be considered a valid point of customer service contact, it needs to have some of the immediacy of calling in.

We queried:

Some of these airlines have been active on Twitter for a long time and other accounts are relatively new. The Air Canada account is really less of a customer service channel and more of a tool used to promote their ezine, though in a direct message to us they indicated that they are working towards creating a customer service channel on Twitter as well: "@atramp_abroad At this time, we generally respond to tweets related to webSaver offers. We listen to our customers on various channels." With the exception of Air Canada, who admitted that they are not yet adept at using Twitter for customer service purposes, all the airlines who responded basically said that yes they try to respond to customers and that they do so in a timely manner if at all possible.

Results of Airlines on Twitter Survey

In addition to looking at whether an airline bothered to respond to our inquiry, we examined a number of things about their individual accounts to try and get some sense of how they are using the platform: age of account, types of tweets (PR, RTs or @), the number of followers, the number they are following and the length of time it took for each airline to respond to us.

Please click on any of the graphs to view them in a larger size.

Airlines Who Responded to Twitter Survey
Airlines Who Responded to Twitter Survey

We were pleasantly surprised to have received responses from 60% of the airlines we polled including: American Airlines, Air Canada,  BMI Baby, Delta, EasyJet, Jet Blue, Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic and Westjet. The airlines that didn't respond at all are: British Airways, Jet2com, KLM, Lufthansa, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. This surprised us a bit because often the economy airlines like Easyjet get a bum rap for bad customer service while British Airways is often thought to be the leader in customer service. Not on Twitter.

Length Airlines Took to Repond to Twitter Survey
Length Airlines Took to Repond to Twitter Survey

It should be noted that because many of these airlines are located in various timezones, the rate of response isn't necessarily a fair way to calculate customer service as some airlines in our timezone would have had an advantage over airlines in Europe who likely wouldn't have noticed our Tweet until the next morning.

Age of Airline Twitter Account
Age of Airline Twitter Account

Of the airlines polled, over 50% have accounts that are between 400 and 600 days old - with many of those signing up to Twitter right around the same time. Delta has the youngest Twitter account, but they do have multiple accounts on Twitter so this may not be an accurate reflection of the length of time the company has been active on the platform. Jetblue and Southwest Air have had the longest presence on Twitter.

Airlines on Twitter: Followed vs. Following
Airlines on Twitter: Followed vs. Following

We're not sure that the follower numbers demonstrate a lot apart from how these airlines use Twitter. Many airlines follow back a fairly high percentage of those accounts who follow them, which might be an indication of customer service; reciprocal following enables Direct Messaging, which might be a preferable method of communication for airlines as it keeps customer concerns more private.

What Airlines Tweet
What Airlines Tweet

We thought that this was an important one to include, because it really demonstrates how the various airlines use Twitter as a platform; are they engaging with their customers by responding to them, or are they using it primarily as yet another one-way marketing platform? We only looked at the most recent ten Tweets from each airline and grouped each one according to whether it began with an "@", was a statement Tweet (no @ and no RT) or whether it was a simple Re-tweet.

Apart from British Airways and KLM who do have a fairly high proportion of @ tweets, it was interesting to note that most of the airlines who didn't respond to our survey (those in red) tend to use Twitter as a one-way broadcasting platform. United Airlines seems to view their Twitter account as an extension of their other PR activity; it's a place where they talk but don't listen or respond. On the other hand, Easy Jet, Jet Blue and Virgin Atlantic treat their Twitter accounts as a channel to talk and engage with their customers and potential customers; for them it's a conversation.

Conclusion

This survey was done fairly quickly but it gives customers a basic outline of how successfully airlines are utilizing Twitter as a customer service channel. To go back to the statement on Travel Rants: which airlines are a waste of time to contact using Twitter. The good news for Easy Jet clients is that, although they may charge a ridiculous fee for phone calls, if you talk to them on Twitter they will often respond.

Many airlines are doing a very good job of engaging their customers on Twitter and others (*cough* United Airlines *cough*) just don't get it and should hire someone who understand the potential for social media to get them up to speed. To those airlines that are using Twitter as a one-way medium to broadcast their PR messages: you are out of touch and missing a huge opportunity. Social media is not an extension of your television and print media campaign but an important opportunity to engage with your customers and build your brand not by talking but by creating meaningful relationships that will translate into customer loyalty and word of mouth that you couldn't buy.

Although the goal of this survey wasn't to pick a winner, for our money it would be Jetblue. They were early adopters of Twitter, have the highest number of followers, they responded to our survey almost instantly and, most importantly, they understand Twitter and use it to have conversations with their customers. Congratulations JetBlue - you should give a pay rise to whoever manages your social media customer service effort; your competitors would be clever to follow your lead.

Have you dealt with any of these airlines on Twitter? Any anecdotal stories to share? How does their response rate on Twitter correspond to in person customer service? We'd love to hear from you.

All charts compiled by Dan Zambonini.

Image Credit: Airplane_2 by Olastuen