The drama starring Marybeth Cadotte and United unfolded like a serial e-novel.
The Pittsburgh traveller, trapped on a plane beset with mechanical problems, opened the scene with the first lines of tweetologue.
"Stuck on the plane in Pittsburgh. Let's get it together @united," she wrote to the carrier's Twitter account March 21. "Let's fix the planes before u load them with people! We need flaps to fly."
United, humble and contrite, replied with an apology for the delay, adding optimistically: "We hope to have you on your way soon."
A happy ending seemed imminent when Cadotte reported the arrival of a mechanic.
"Fingers crossed I make my connection in Denver!"
After a short intermission, Cadotte was back, indulging in a burger and a Bloody Mary in the Pittsburgh airport. In her final tweet to the airline that day, either the vodka had commandeered the keyboard or the fruitful exchange had cheered her mood.
"Shout out to cust service twitter @united!" she typed. "Still on my crazy journey but you pulled thru for me!"
Cadotte had relied on Twitter to communicate with the carrier, a savvy decision, especially considering her situation. Through frequent messages, United's social media team could track her case and, when her disabled plane returned to the gate, arrange a new reservation. Even better: She could take the express route to the bar, bypassing the long line of passengers waiting to rebook and avoiding the overburdened call service and the squirrelly airline app.
"There were 200 people from my plane trying to be rebooked with the gate attendant," she said, when I contacted her post-trip. "The United app crashed, and people were on their phones talking to United. Twitter was definitely the way to go."
The enlightened age of social media has dawned over the airline industry, casting shadows over telephone call centers and on-site agents. Facebook and Twitter are racking up the friends and followers while the hold music plays on.
"The airlines are using social media like they are using the phone, for one-to-one issue resolution," said Ragy Thomas, chief executive of Sprinklr, a social media technology provider. "It's unrivaled in its efficiency."
Over the past few years, most major and minor carriers have established a presence on Twitter and Facebook, in addition to YouTube and Instagram. United and KLM started dabbling in the alternative medium in 2009 before fully committing a year or two later. Delta unveiled @DeltaAssist in 2006. Emirates is the kid brother racing to catch up. The Dubai company unveiled its handle March 25 and had sent out 17 tweets by the end of its first week on Planet Twitter.
Two events cemented the union between airlines and social media. During the mega-snowstorm of February 2007, the chief executive of JetBlue spoke to affected and frustrated passengers via YouTube. Three years later, the Icelandic volcano erupted, creating havoc over Europe's skies. Overwhelmed with calls and queries, KLM turned to Facebook and Twitter to reach more eyes. Today, the Dutch carrier employs 135 social media agents who are available 24 hours a day and fluent in 10 languages.
"The airline industry is a front-runner in the adoption of social media," said Raymond Kollau, founder of Airlinetrends.com, "as it allows travelers in transit to get in touch with their airline in a much easier way. And, more importantly, social media has provided customers with a magnified voice that can have a huge impact on an airline's reputation."
If Cadotte could have climbed through her smartphone screen, she would have fallen into the lap of Karen Petrella. ^KP, her sobriquet, was Cadotte's fairy GM. Her initials, along with 11 other sets, are sprinkled all over United's Twitter page.
When I met Petrella on a mid-March morning, she was more than halfway through her day, which started at 6 a.m. and ended at 2:30 p.m. She casually dropped that she had already handled 200 to 300 Facebook and Twitter messages; I was embarrassed to share with her my accomplishments (put on shoes, rode the elevator).
"I can handle three issues at once," said the former United phone reservations agent. "Before, I could be stuck on one call for four hours and maybe help 80 people a day."
At her workstation, Petrella faced two computer screens arranged like an open book. On the machine to the right, she could see the Twitter page, with one column headed Assigned to Me and another called Twitter Mentions, which showed the threads of ongoing conversations. On the left-hand monitor, she toggled between the reservations system, the carrier's main Web site, United Hub (tagline: "your source for United Airlines articles, videos and news"), the airline's Facebook page and an online site that shortens URLs.
"@United failed online check-in exCDG tomorrow, knows perfectly well who I am. I resent cursory docks glance instead of direct to gate #fail," Paul Cadario, a top-tier frequent flier, wrote from Paris about the carrier's Web site denying him a boarding pass.
"We regret the inconvenience," ^KP replied. "Please see this page for full details for online check-in."
Cadario tossed out three more tweets that morning, clearly unhappy: "@united should not have robots like ^KP responding to tweeted complaints." He returned the following day with an epilogue: "@United checkin at CDG didn't even look at document your website demanded and then wouldn't let me checkin online #sloppy #majorfail."
No one on United's side responded.
"If I'm annoyed, I'll say what I'm displeased with," Cadario told me a few days after his return to Washington. "But sometimes there's a misunderstanding about what you're complaining about."
The airline originally used the form of media as a marketing arm with a giant squid's reach. About two years ago, it expanded into customer service, with live reps addressing operational issues from 6 a.m. to midnight (an off-site support staff monitors the messages in the wee hours). On average, the team receives 25,000 comments or queries a week. When a wintry mix hits, like January's snowstorms, the number doubles.
Cadotte's case is a shining example of social media working for you. After a delay at the Pittsburgh gate, her plane finally took off. Minutes later, Cadotte sensed that the plane was still limping. Before she lost WiFi, she sent an alert to United about her predicament: She was never going to make her connection to San Diego.
She was right. For 90 minutes, the aircraft flew in circles, dumping fuel for an emergency landing. Back at the airport, she discovered a surprise from United: A new itinerary was sitting in her Twitter account.
For the airlines, such shrinking-world innovations as Twitter and Facebook move like jackrabbits. The response time is short, and the exchanges are pithy and direct; the 140-character limit requires a poet's finesse. KLM, for one, displays the reply time on its Twitter page and updates it every five minutes (on a Friday afternoon, the wait was 36 minutes). United aims for a holler-back time of 15 to 30 minutes, although it often outperforms its own goals.
"The immediacy is the most significant change," said Rick Garlick, a travel and hospitality expert at J.D. Power, a global marketing information services company. "Nip it in the bud, that's the idea."
With these tools, the airlines can disseminate their message more widely while also creating a community where they can forge a more personal connection with the traveler. Many thousands of eyeballs (1.64 million followers for Southwest, 874,000 for KLM, 788,000 on American) can, for example, simultaneously see fare sale promotions, newsy bits on upgraded aircraft services, weather alerts and flight changes. Those same peepers can also read all about the plight of individual travelers who've lost bags, missed connections or fretted over an ailing parent (e.g., a mom who suffered a panic attack on a KLM flight). And if you feel isolated by your travel woes, embrace the crowd and soak up its virtual empathy.
"1) Get me to San Antonio (stuck in Denver due to delay). 2) Provide a reasonable place to sleep. 3) Make sure my luggage arrives," @kevinsjuts wrote to United.
@AllWriteNannyLA joined the conversation, sending the traveler a note of been-there support.
"Best of luck to you, Kevin. I was in that same boat earlier."
Scan United's Twitter feed and you'll notice that many queries are easy to answer. They roll off the representatives' fingers.
"Complimentary admittance to our club is not offered for disservice," ^MN responded to a passenger who requested a lounge pass as solace for his luggage troubles.
Petrella enjoys the challenging dilemmas, the "irregular operations" that require a nimble hand to rearrange the puzzle of travel. When all segments are working in tandem, though, she'll devote her energies to less intricate questions about missing mileage credits, securing wheelchairs, ordering special meals and bringing a miniature horse aboard (allowed if it's a service animal). In several cases, she'll provide the answer, plus a link to the information. For situations that fall within another department's purview, such as locating lost luggage or refund requests, she'll collect the essential information and forward the message to the correct team.
The tweeting travelers "are happy when they can get instant results," she said. "Eighty percent of the time we can resolve it here."
A moderator assigns each employee cases, and a single rep typically stays with the customer until the issue is resolved or the rep's shift ends. When I joined Petrella, she was in the middle of helping @AllWriteNannyLA, who was stranded in Denver en route to Los Angeles.
"@united is officially thee worst, most disappointing airline. I've had better flying experiences with #Spirit," read the passenger's initial tweet.
^KP responded, "We don't like hearing this. If there is something we can assist you with, please DM the details."
Petrella found two flights to the final destination. But before she could take the next step, @AllWriteNannyLA slammed the door and locked her out: She had "unfollowed" United.
While @AllWriteNannyLA bubbled on the back burner, Petrella booked an awards ticket and selected seats for a passenger in Bangkok and thanked a flier for sharing his enjoyment of Channel 9 (the cockpit chatter station) during his flight. She sent the passenger upset over the dearth of entertainment options the link to United Hub, which features progress reports on upgrades to a fleet's in-flight WiFi system and other diversions. To @mofo313, who wondered why a flight search yielded a higher price on United than on Kayak, she gave a brief economics lesson. And when a passenger swooned over hearing the song "Reunited" on her way to the United gate, we all climbed aboard that sweet Peaches and Herb cloud.
"It's nice when they acknowledge you and share their positive experience," Petrella said. "I'm just happy with a thank you."
Petrella never heard back from @AllWriteNannyLA, but the traveler resurfaced later that afternoon. She had finally landed in Los Angeles, according to her tweet. Her suitcase, however, had not.
"You may trace your bag here," tweeted ^EY, who included the link to lost luggage.
The Washington Post