Mike Brice skipped the queue at the Delta Air Lines Inc. (DAL) ticket counter and dashed off a post on Twitter Inc. when he missed his Atlanta connection en route home to Utah from South Carolina.
Within minutes, the 40-year-old communications consultant had been rebooked for the following morning by an agent on the Delta team that uses Twitter to remedy passengers' real-time complaints—changing flights, finding lost luggage, or sharing details on weather delays.
Bucking the typical corporate practice of monitoring Twitter just to listen to consumers, Delta sets itself apart by resolving gripes on the No. 3 social-networking site in the U.S., said Shel Holtz of consultant Holtz Communication & Technology in San Francisco.
"Delta is out in front, especially for the airline industry," Holtz said. "What people are looking for in a lot of these situations is just acknowledgment, and to have someone try to resolve their problem. It shouldn't matter which way they reach out, whether it's by phone or e-mail or on Twitter."
Delta's Twitter account is run by customer-service employees who use the direct-message function to privately swap information and view passengers' itineraries. The account is watched from 8 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. New York time on business days. Brice fired off his posting to the world's largest airline and headed to a hotel to sleep when he was stranded.
"Instead of waiting in a long line with everyone else, I knew on Twitter they would get to me right away," said Brice, of Ogden, Utah, who has flown 30 times this year.
Delta maintains a main company account as well as one dedicated to service issues, @DeltaAssist. Remedying complaints via Twitter also scrubs the carrier's image, because passengers camped out in airports after late or canceled flights have time on their hands to grumble online.
"The whole idea is to work to address issues so they don't escalate," said Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta. "It is ideal for us to have these agents at customers' disposal to offer guidance in resolving issues even during their travel experience."
Most companies tend Twitter with public-relations or marketing employees, said consultant Holtz. Comcast Corp. (CMCSA) was among the pioneers in responding to customers through Twitter, in 2008, he said. Hotels, phone companies, and large retailers are also using it as a consumer-service venue, he said.
Delta competitors have felt the sting of criticism in online social media.
On Feb. 13, movie director Kevin Smith tweeted after being bumped from a Southwest Airlines Co. (LUV) flight because he was too large to fit in a single seat on a full plane, triggering "hundreds and hundreds" of tweets from friends and fans, said Christi Day, who runs the carrier's Twitter account.
In July 2009, musician Dave Carroll of the band Sons of Maxwell posted a video on Google Inc.'s (GOOG) YouTube called "United Breaks Guitars" chronicling his efforts to get United Airlines to pay for repairs to a guitar he says was broken by baggage handlers in Chicago. The video has been viewed 9 million times.
Delta began monitoring Twitter and Facebook earlier this year, after JetBlue Airways Corp. (JBLU) and Southwest started accounts in 2007 and UAL Corp.'s (UAUA) United jumped in last year. Delta's main account has 74,000 followers. DeltaAssist has fewer than 2,000.
Listening to Travelers
JetBlue and Southwest, which have 1.6 million and 1.04 million Twitter followers, respectively, say they use the service mainly to listen to passengers and that they refer many travelers to call centers or websites to settle issues such as a missed flight. Public-relations specialists, not customer-service agents, manage their Twitter accounts.
"Our channel is definitely different than Delta's," Southwest's Day said. "Customer service is a piece of it, but it isn't the whole puzzle. Our primary goal is to watch for evolving, up-and-coming issues."
Morgan Johnston, who runs JetBlue's account, said he often learns of operational snags from passengers' postings before hearing from the New York-based airline's employees.
"We can reach out to our operations people and say 'Heads-up, customers want more info,' " Johnston said. "Chances are if there's one person at a gate area asking about a delay, there are 140 more people in the boarding area who have the same question."
JetBlue and Dallas-based Southwest said fewer than 10 percent of the Twitter feeds citing the airlines are complaints, and that most are queries about fare sales or new destinations. Delta declined to say how many Twitter messages are complaints.
Holtz, the consultant, said Delta earns goodwill by being able to respond when passengers feel powerless in the face of airport delays, misdirected luggage, or canceled flights. The airline also got a payoff after rebooking stranded passenger Brice. He wrote about the results on Twitter.
"Having that immediate attention from Delta on Twitter is one of the reasons I select them," Brice said.
His only complaint: that DeltaAssist isn't staffed on weekends. He posted that observation, too.