Inside social media at Delta Air Lines — a behind the scenes look
It’s every travel brand’s social media worst nightmare: A video goes viral putting the company in a sour light.
Such was the case for Delta Air Lines June 7 when U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan posted a YouTube video, complaining about how they were shocked that they got charged by Delta for fourth checked bags as they traveled in economy from Baltimore, Md., to Atlanta, en route to Louisiana.
By the next day, the video was airing seemingly everywhere in social media and on big-time news shows, and Delta was being portrayed as insensitive to the military.
Before getting more into the nitty-gritty of this particular social media crisis, here’s some background on Delta’s social media operation. Susan Elliott, a Delta spokeswoman who works closely with the social media unit, gave Tnooz a tour of the facility June 15 in the airline’s Atlanta headquarters. Here’s the video:
Ironically, despite all of the monitoring tools that the social media team uses, as shown and described in the above video, the first inkling that Delta got about a looming crisis came from a reporter’s inquiry late in the afternoon on June 7, and Delta a tad later learned of the soldiers’ YouTube video.
Elliott says Delta couldn’t immediately make a decision on any remedial actions because the airline first needed to assess what actually had happened, and corporate communications, social media folks and various departments needed to speak with operations.
It turns out that Delta personnel had actually broken no policies, Elliott says. The airline had a contract with the federal government’s General Services Administration calling for active military traveling on orders in economy class to get three bags, weighing up to 70 pounds each, checked for free. So Delta charged the soldiers for their fourth checked bags per the policy.
But, by 11 p.m. on June 7, while it was still in fact-finding mode, Delta had issued an apology to the soldiers via the Delta Air Lines Blog. Rachael R, manager of Delta social media and a self-described “Army wife,” wrote:
In the case of today’s situation, we would like to publicly apologize to those service men and women for any miscommunication regarding our current policies as well as any inconvenience we may have caused. We are currently looking further into the situation, and will be reaching out to each of them personally to address their concerns and work to correct any issues they have faced.
By 7:30 a.m. the next morning, June 8, representatives of various airline departments were discussing a policy change via email.
Airlines generally aren’t very nimble entities and changing a policy is not as simple as toggling a switch.
But at around 9:30 a.m., Delta changed the policy, which meant that computer systems had to be updated, airport kiosks needed to be modified and employees at airports around the world had to be notified.
When the dust had settled, Delta changed its policy to enable soliders traveling on orders in economy to check four bags for free, instead of the previous three, and military personnel traveling in first or business class now get five bags checked for free, an increase from the previous four.
The airline also broadened the policy in a couple of other ways, as well. The free bag allotment was expanded to apply to dependents traveling with soldiers on orders.
And, soldiers traveling for their own leisure travel now can check two bags, weighing up to 50 pounds each, for free.
Delta responded relatively quickly to the crisis and undoubtedly learned from other social media flashpoints, including the United Breaks Guitars episode.
As Elliott says, “Social media being so new and issues that are popping up, everyone’s learning from everybody.”
Some other tidbits about Delta’s social media operation:
- About a dozen Social Assist Agents, who hailed from the reservations department, staff Delta’s Twitter account, Delta Assist, on a 24 hour basis. Each is authorized to immediately issue a travel credit, when appropriate. They can rebook travelers and do anything a reservations agent might do with the exception of selling tickets.
- The social media staff doesn’t respond to every tweet about the airline, and does its share of apologizing to customers. For example, here’s a June 16 tweet from JH at Delta Assist: “@JonLinkStudios I’m listening & I apologize. If I can be of assistance, pls follow and DM me your confirmation # or baggage tag #. Thx. ^JH”
- Notice that each tweet gets the initials of the Social Assist Agent doing the Delta tweeting, making the tweets a little more personalized.
- Some of the tweeting with customers is handled openly online, but when it comes to travel details and personal information, much of it takes place through Direct Messages.
- The Delta social media team monitors the Twitter accounts of competitors, including Southwest, American Airlines and Continental, but the line-up of competitors varies.
Disclosure: Delta Air Lines provided the writer with a free flight to its Atlanta headquarters.
Dennis Schaal was North American editor for Tnooz.