In June 2015, Grant Thomas, a travel blogger, received an email from American Airlines. He had booked a flight to Chicago in October and had chosen a schedule that would allow him to arrive just before the start of a conference and leave as soon as it ended. The email told him that the airline had changed the flight schedule. He would now arrive 25 minutes earlier, which was fine. But his return flight had been moved more than three hours earlier, when he would still be listening to presentations.

Instead of calling the airline, working his way through the menu, listening to the canned music and waiting for a customer service rep to try to find him a different flight, Thomas took a different approach. He opened On The Fly, a flight comparison app owned by Google, found an alternative flight himself and took a screenshot. He sent that screenshot, together with his record locator, in a direct message to American Airlines' Twitter account asking for his schedule to be changed. An hour and 40 minutes later, he received a direct message back informing him that the airline had rebooked his flight, was sending him an email confirmation and had reserved his window seat.

"There is something quite awesome about spending 2 minutes taking screenshots and sending a few tweets to get your issue resolved without ever speaking with a human on the phone," Thomas said in a blog post about the experience.

American Airlines was actually pretty slow. For complaints, the company says it usually aims to respond within ten minutes. Its social media managers are divided into two teams: a small unit to post content and promotions across social media; and a larger team that responds to queries and complaints. That team operates 24/7. If customers can fly at any hour, someone from the airline will be available at any time to answer questions. Queries from passengers before or during travel tend to be posted on Twitter, while complaints afterwards, such as lost baggage or rude flight attendants, tend to be posted on Facebook.

American isn't the only airline to operate in this way. Delta has a similar service and most domestic US airlines now provide some sort of customer service on Twitter. If you're stuck in a traffic jam and you're going to miss your flight, your best option now isn't try to call the airline but to send a tweet and get instant help.

It wasn't always this way. Back in the early days of Twitter, many feeds were managed by one person who did little more than post news and promotions. Since then, airlines have come to understand that people will contact them on Twitter, and they need to be ready to respond.

American Airlines has gone further. In an interview with Skift, a travel intelligence company, in 2013, one of the airline's social media staff explained the strategy the team uses when talking to customers on Twitter. Three main approaches stood out:

  • The airline uses a "preferred tone of voice" that matches the company's brand and broadcasts a personality, but which also gives staff the freedom to be authentic and engaging. Both of those are always vital in social media. A social media account always has to be as professional as a company but still feel like a human being.
  • It's empathetic. The airline's customer service staff don't argue. They apologize for problems, show genuine concern for the issues, and ask for personal details in private so that they can deal with the problem. It's about service not PR.
  • Staff are empowered. Customer service on Twitter too often feels like the first stage of a telephone menu: staff collect a contact detail then pass it on to someone else to handle. American Airlines staff can often find answers and solutions themselves. That makes for rapid responses and solved solutions.

Twitter has come a long way since early airline feeds were about promotions and pasted apologies for problems.  American has shown other airlines -- as well as other companies -- the right way to deliver customer service in a series of tweets.