How was your flight? That used to be the first question people asked after you travelled at 35,000ft. But these days, airline passengers are increasingly volunteering the answer to this question even before being asked. And, if their pre-flight, in-flight or post-flight air travel experience isn’t up scratch, it’s not uncommon for them to air their grievances on Facebook, Twitter, travel forums and other social media outlets.
Socially savvy airlines pay attention to what is being said on the Internet; they want to know what people think about everything from their online reservations systems and mobile apps to inflight entertainment and – for better or worse – customer service. Ultimately, they can use this information to improve their products and services, and cater to their passengers’ needs.
Those carriers that ignore the discussion, and fail to instigate change, risk being named and shamed by the growing cacophony of voices on social media. Moreover, and perhaps even more crucially, airlines that fail to engage their passengers in a real way – and begin to incorporate social elements into their other digital communications tools – could find themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the future.
TALK THE TALK
The advent of Web 2.0 in the late 1990s and early 2000s allowed users to interact with each other as creators of user-generated content in a virtual online community. Some airlines – such as Southwest Airlines – were early adopters and innovators in the space, embracing the blogging format, Facebook and Twitter to communicate with customers.
Today Southwest employs a focused social media team, which is encouraged to explore new channels. For instance, the carrier has tapped the relatively new Pinterest community, and has already attracted 6,807 followers and 15 boards, one of which features “pinned” vintage images of the airline’s aircraft, livery and uniforms.
“We now have a full tool belt of different communities that we’re reaching,” says Christi McNeill, senior emerging media specialist at the airline. She notes that, going forward, “we’ll be taking it to the next level”.
Yet even though airlines worldwide had been using Twitter and Facebook for years, IATA waited until its Annual General Meeting (AGM) in 2012 to “try to break the ice” and understand whether social media has a role to play in airline business. “Is it a vehicle to develop our brand? Is it a vehicle to develop our CRM? Is it a vehicle to develop our internal corporate culture? What exactly is the role that social media has to play and why do we want to use this,” moderator Anita Mendiratta of Cachet Consulting asked a panel of speakers at the AGM.
One panellist, Bowen Craggs & Co director David Bowen said social media is a misleading phrase because “it bundles together concepts that have very little in common and is not social”. Whilst conceding that social media is a set of useful and distinct channels, he warned that it’s not the answer to everything and “I don’t think it’ll be part of everybody’s lives. There’s a big chunk of people who wont’ like it.”
Even so, statistics about social media usage are staggering. Earlier this year consultant Jeff Bullas noted that on Facebook alone, monthly active users total nearly 850 million; some 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day; and 20 per cent of all page views on the web are on Facebook.
“In the time that social media has been around, it has made a genuine impact with the airline business,” says Henry Harteveldt, co-founder and chief research officer of Atmosphere Research Group. He notes that social media “is part of the marketing mix and has developed with some speed around the world, with the exception of China, which has imposed access restrictions to social networks”.
He asks us to cast our minds back to the day in 2010 when an Icelandic volcano erupted spewing out an ash cloud that disrupted the travel plans of millions of people. Eurocontrol, the European air navigation organisation, could not update its web site fast enough to keep up with the ongoing status of the cloud so it used its Twitter account to send out instant updates to its followers as they became available.
“The cloud was a baptism of fire,” says Harteveldt. “Many airlines found they could also turn to Twitter and Facebook to post real-time updates. This terrible disaster spurned the industry to introduce a productive e-commerce channel and the challenge was to focus on having clear strategies for e-commerce, web sites and social media.”
Many top-level airline executives, however, don’t always understand the power of social media, a symptom perhaps of their age or lack of technological prowess. “A lot of them just don’t get it, but it’s not acceptable to have a senior vice president who doesn’t have more than a fundamental knowledge of what social media is,” says Harteveldt.
He affords high praise to Delta Air Lines and KLM, among others, for having done “a phenomenal job” using social media. Delta has created separate Twitter handles: @Deltanewsroom is a resource for people interested in the airline’s news; @DeltaAssist is for customer service; and @Delta is for tips and promos. “They really are a standard setter.”
He has been “surprised and delighted” by KLM. The carrier has presented passengers with gifts relevant to their destination, and encouraged them to send in pictures of themselves on their travels from which the airline mounted a mosaic of 4,000 images on a Boeing 777 as a one-off livery.
In 2011 the carrier even replaced normal Facebook- and Twitter-typed responses with a living alphabet made up of 140 KLM employees as part of a ‘Live Reply’ social media campaign. “It is just one more way for KLM to show how it meets the needs of its customers up close and personal,” said KLM at the time. “[The] campaign should show, in a special and, more important, personal way that we’re willing to go the extra mile for our customers. We can’t imagine communication with our customers without social media anymore.”
For many airlines social media is now an important part of a cadre of digital communications tools that must be continually honed. Airline web sites are another, but, truth be told, these are sometimes neglected, and fail to provide the information that is necessary for passengers to make informed buying decisions (like whether inflight Wi-Fi is available on a particular flight, or specifics about a seat).
Airlines’ lack of action in this regard has created opportunities for third parties. Enter RouteHappy, which allows users to discover very specific ‘passenger experience’ elements of their flight, right down to seat recline and cabin ambiance. The data are based on user-generated reviews, which means the site is social at its core.
“Flying has become overly commoditised and there’s none too little information about price, schedule and frequent flyer loyalties,” says RouteHappy co-founder and CEO Robert Albert. But, he notes, “When you fly it’s a highly differentiated experience. It matters what kind of airplane you’re on, what cabin you’re in, what kind of fare you bought, time of day, day of the week you fly, the airport you fly from. Even on the same airline and route, you can have a totally different experience based on the quality of the amenities the airline offers.”
Harteveldt likens RouteHappy to the TripAdvisor of the airline industry. And Albert appreciates the comparison, noting that TripAdvisor provides “an incredibly valuable service for the hotel industry really for consumers” because it focuses on what hotels do well and not so well.
One wonders if the next step for RouteHappy is to link up with a major online travel agent or create one by formally partnering with a global distribution system for bookings. It’s conceivable that RouteHappy is poised to become a one-stop-shop for mobile, vocal, social travellers who care about both price and the passenger experience.
Yet, as airlines seek to generate more direct bookings on their web sites, it’s clear this is a space in which they too should innovate. The type of content on an airline’s homepage is important, suggests Shashank Nigam, CEO of Simpliflying, a consulting firm that guides the airline industry on customer engagement strategies through their web sites and social media.
“Qatar Airways’ homepage features an inspirational background image in the hope that a customer might be tempted to book a holiday somewhere they hadn’t previously thought of when they come to the site,” says Nigam, noting too that there are actionable elements to the site: check flight status, book a trip, earn rewards, join the club. “These make the booking process more humane and gives the customer a warm feeling,” he says.
But in the future Nigam predicts the airline web site “will be dead”. Instead, airlines “will have booking engines on social networking sites like Facebook”.
To wit, Delta was among the first carriers to start selling tickets on Facebook. Alaska Airlines allows Facebook friends to connect with each other as part of a ‘Flying Social’ app that searches for friends at all of the carrier’s destinations. And social seating solutions like those offered by KLM and airBaltic show that steps, albeit tentative ones, are being taken to link social network profiles with airline seat maps.
Significantly, social media is now being used by airlines to engage frequent flyers on a whole new level to drive interest and activity in loyalty programmes, which are “becoming a big part of their customer service”, notes Harteveldt. (See how BalticMiles’ brainstorming session on social media generated a big response from travellers.)
Some of the most creative technological advancements at airlines – certainly the most transparent to the travelling public – are happening on the mobile front, as the proliferation of smart phones and tablets, and the popularity of airline mobile apps, continues apace.
For instance, British Airways recently launched an ‘Inspiration’ mobile boarding app for the new Microsoft operating system, Windows 8 that allows users to discover destinations “based on temperature, month and what they are best for”; see the carrier’s cheapest ticket prices from London to each destination; read how its pilots, cabin-crew and customers would spend a perfect day in many destinations; and explore its aircraft cabins.
Whereby British Airways’ regular mobile app serves the first part of a customer’s journey, by providing information about British Airways flights with real-time updates, the Inspiration app serves a different purpose. “It’s for the middle stage of the journey, at the airport; checking in, getting through security and getting to the boarding gate,” says British Airways’ digital marketing innovation manager, Richard Bowden.
Nigam, meanwhile, observes a “stellar” performance by Japan Airlines for engaging travellers openly amid brand revival; it had revived itself despite declaring bankruptcy in 2010.
“The airline launched 10 mobile apps, just in this year alone, including a mobile booking app, mobile boarding pass and an augmented reality app to help navigation at Haneda Airport. And while they are individual apps, they are all interconnected – so some features from one app can be accessed on another, and this would drive downloads of the related app as well,” he says.
Nigam hopes that the airline will produce an app that does everything, going forward. “It’s about trial and error, trying it out to see what trends.”
WHAT TOMORROW MAY BRING
It wasn’t too long ago that certain talking heads predicted that social media would be a “trend” or “fad” that would soon fade. Yet, Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes says, “2012 will be remembered as the year businesses officially took the social media plunge, embracing Twitter, Facebook and other networks as an integral part of strategy.”
He adds: “In 2013, these companies can look forward to expanded returns on their investment, as social technologies improve and functionality extends beyond just marketing and community building.”
That’s good news for any airline that stays socially savvy.