Disruptions to airline schedules can now be instantly relayed through social media sites, confronting carriers with real-time feedback that could either harm or burnish their image depending on how they respond.
"Chaos at J'burg. No one from Cathay Pacific seems to know what is going on, no counters open, no plan, just a v. long queue of p-ed off ppl," a tweet by Jon Wade on December 26 said.
"Five counters and only 1 official here. How come?? Are they on holidays," said a tweet by Lilian Krisna about Singapore Airlines on the same day.
The growing army of netizens airing their opinions is shaping and shifting the image of airlines, running counter to expensive advertisements the airlines produce themselves. Cathay cabin crew threats to withhold food or even smiles on board elicited a comment on Twitter by Fred Thompson: "They call it a strike. I call it flying coach." The comment was re- tweeted more than 80 times in less than an hour.
While airlines are "overspending" to improve their brand, they have overlooked a cost-effective way to promote themselves by responding to social media comments promptly and effectively, said Derek Maggs, vice-president of services industries for SAP's transportation and logistics industry segment in Asia-Pacific.
Budget carriers, on the other hand, have done a better job than full-service carriers, according to a survey on Qantas and Air Asia's social media profile by SAP.
Qantas only received half the social media 'sound bite' of Air Asia despite its revenue being at least six times more. Tony Fernandes, chief executive of Air Asia, is a regular on the airlines' Twitter site.
While some might think the fewer the Twitter comments the better for the airline - as most of the sound bites might be negative to the company, that is not the case, according to Maggs.
Approximately 15 per cent of the threads are positive while 20 per cent are negative. Neutral threads - consisting mainly of updates or news from the airlines - account for 75 per cent.
Social media channels available to passengers to air and share their comments are as wide-ranging as their number of carrier choices.
Some 30 per cent to 40 per cent of Air France, United Airlines and Malaysia Airlines passengers are using Twitter, while 10 per cent to 20 per cent are using Facebook. Flyer's forums take up 10 per cent to 20 per cent with other social media platforms account for the rest.
"By monitoring and analysing these comments, the airlines can identify problems and apply solutions or training," said Maggs.
He also advised that if airlines could keep a direct dialogue with their passengers, they would be better able to apply 'contingency plan seven', a mode of operation enacted when mass-service disruptions follow natural disasters or industrial action.
"Prioritizing stranded passengers by reasoning that they are flying is much better than categorising purely by classes (economy, business and first)," said Maggs.
"It is possible that an economy passenger has a more urgent reason to travel than a first-class passenger."