Delta’s Team Twitter

January 11, 2011

As we noted here before, Delta emerged from the recent East Coast blizzards as something of a “Twitteneer,” a word we just coined (we think), combining “Twitter” and “pioneer.”  During the storm, some stranded and delayed Delta passengers used Twitter to re-book flights, while their less tech-savvy flight mates who used phones and airport personnel stayed aground for many hours.

With airlines so quick to copy each other, we wanted to know how Delta’s managed to get the drop on its competitors by using social media.

Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for Delta, said that beginning in late 2009, Delta started monitoring the Twittersphere, and noticed conversations – positive and negative – taking place about the airline. Like many businesses, Delta decided it was better to be proactive, but the airline made a crucial decision: instead of using Twitter as a marketing tool, it decided to emphasize customer service.

To that end, last May, Delta instituted a pilot program, recruiting who Elliott says is, “the cream of the crop” of their reservations agents and trained them in all things a-Twitter:  How to tweet, tweeting shorthand, and how to solve problems succinctly, within the confines of 140 characters.

Whereas many corporate pilot programs undergo months of testing and tweaking, DeltaAssist, as the program was dubbed, was such an immediate success that just two weeks later Delta decided to make it permanent and expanded the number of Twitter agents from four to nine.

Elliott says that even though Twitter lends itself to immediate interaction, and although the New York Times’ article emphasized how the Twitterati were able to attain lift-off quicker, DeltaAssist is not so much about immediate response as it is about communicating with customers in the manner in which they prefer.

Other popular subjects that fliers tweet about include navigating a particular airport, upgrades, using frequent flier mileage, lost luggage, and clearing customs. Delta also uses Twitter to send out travel advisory alerts

Still, there’s no denying that Twitter has its unique aspects. Pointing out that Delta has the largest fleet of planes with Wi-Fi availability, Elliott notes, “Passengers will tweet mid-flight. If their plane was delayed, they want to know if they’ll make their connection, or they’ll ask if we can re-book them.”

Another invaluable aspect is nipping negative publicity in the bud. “People are tweeting to their friends about some problem or complaint, just to blow off steam, and they’re surprised when they get a response from one of our agents, asking, ‘How can we make this better?’” she says.  The benefits are obvious:  instead of a complaint being repeated and shared online, one well-placed tweet may generate a grateful customer conveying messages like “You won’t believe what Delta did…”

The program is still in its infancy, and Elliott is quick to note that when there’s a blizzard or other extreme situation, Twitter can get as overwhelmed as the rest of the system. Still, it’s clear that DeltaAssist and its inevitable copycats are aloft,  and the future for social media with airlines is sky high.