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StarBulletin.com

A few airlines try hand at social networking


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POSTED: Tuesday, October 13, 2009

ATLANTA » A Seattle woman tweets from an airport that JetBlue's birthday present to her was forgetting to put her wheelchair on her flight. Seven minutes later an airline official tweets back that the crew will work quickly to make things right.

On a Facebook page used by Delta Air Lines, a traveler suggests Delta wrap its Wi-Fi fee into its ticket price rather than charge separately. The airline doesn't respond. The page mainly promotes the airline, talks up new services and offers travelers tips on popular things to do in the cities Delta flies to, like Las Vegas.

Discount airlines have traditionally outflanked the big network carriers in customer service and low fares, and it appears they're extending their advantage to social media. The discounters often respond with quick feedback to travelers' concerns on social networking sites, while traditional network carriers peddle last-minute fare deals but seem slow to embrace Twitter and Facebook to beef up customer service.

Hawaii's airlines are active social media participants.

Hawaiian Airlines has at least three pages on Twitter, including FlyHawaiian, HawaiianFares and HawaiianMiles, as well as at least two pages on Facebook. Its Hana Hou! in-flight magazine also has a Facebook page, managed by its marketing department.

“;We're in the process of broadening our presence,”; said Keoni Wagner, vice president of public relations.

The inactive HawaiianAir page was not registered by the airline.

Mesa Air Group's interisland unit go! is active on Twitter with 1,540 followers, itself following nearly 2,000 people and posting more than 1,700 “;tweets,”; or messages of up to 140 characters.

Go! sees the value in social networking for marketing, public relations and “;being able to respond in a timely manner, either to counter activity in the market or the perception of something where we could make a correction,”; said Paul Skellon, vice president.

The airline's marketing staff and an IT staffer take turns posting messages and responding to Twitter users.

While customers using the phone and e-mail to contact the airline outnumber Twitter users' direct contacts for customer service or other issues, Twitter users “;get pretty rapid service,”; said Joe Bock, chief marketing officer. The airline is building a Facebook presence.

Mokulele Airlines and Aloha Air Cargo are also active Facebook and Twitter users.

There is “;great potential”; for using social networking as a customer service channel, said Hawaiian's Wagner, “;and that's one of the things we're studying right now.”;

Customers crave good service and reward airlines that provide it. A national survey cited in a July report by Forrester Research showed that 68 percent of U.S. online leisure travelers say they'd be willing to recommend carriers to family and friends if the company made them feel like a valued customer.

That's a tantalizing incentive for airlines to transform customer service from the dull telephone and e-mail route into the online networking channel — where every customer can speak his mind to the masses — at a time when the weak economy has caused their revenue to plummet.

The Internet has opened the door to millions of people to beam their views across the planet on everything from the quality of airplane food to how long they waited on the tarmac to take off. This presents a conundrum for some airlines.

It takes manpower to troll social networking sites that are updated around the clock. JetBlue has 10 people involved with social networking; Southwest Airlines has seven. But the big carriers, with their higher costs, have faced budget cuts and reductions in management and front-line staff. US Airways, for instance, said in July that it would eliminate 340 customer service agent positions around the country.

So, network carriers like American Airlines, Delta and Continental Airlines focus on merchandising, promotions, general information and other issues while taking baby steps when it comes to responding to complaints on social networking sites.

“;I think we all believe there's gold in these hills. How to mine that gold, we all take different approaches,”; said Roger Frizzell, American's vice president of corporate communications and advertising.

Customers are carefully watching what the airlines are doing.

“;Airlines should do more to connect with customers,”; traveler Laura Jackson, 62 of Hempstead, N.Y., who recently joined Twitter, said at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. “;I think from what I'm seeing, service could be improved if you could get a quick response.”;

And not all air travelers want to be part of a virtual focus group, which is why some bigger carriers for now just have their toes in the water.

“;I think that it would make me less interested in flying with them,”; said Sheila Wood, 26, of Bayport, N.Y., responding to a Facebook query from a reporter. She said social networking sites should be for social time, not corporate intrusion.

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The Associated Press and Star-Bulletin reporter Erika Engle contributed to this report.