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Airlines brands are on the frontlines when it comes to engaging with their customers on Social. Whether you’re an airline or not, there’s a lot to be learned from understanding how airlines monitor, engage and connect with their audience.

Which brands are flying high, and which are experiencing a little turbulence? Our Social Media Industry Report 2017: Airlines has the answers.

Airlines must pay particular attention

Air travel is a singular experience. There are lots of details to attend to, and a lot of “hurry up and wait” involved. Standing in security lines, waiting to board, or waiting on board for take-off are prime circumstances for bored, cranky, or impatient passengers to descend upon social media to share their feelings.

In the best case scenarios, they’re talking about smooth operations, or unexpected perks – like being upgraded to first class, or feeling as if they have. In the worst case scenarios, they’re griping about delays, bad service, or any number of other issues. All this happens in the moment, when emotions are heightened. Airlines especially need to follow conversations in real-time, and stay on their game to avoid negative consumer comments that could impact overall brand health.

So which brands are on top, and which brands need to step up their game – and why?

Before we get into the results, how did we arrive at our conclusions?

Our report measures brand performance by analyzing volume of conversation (as a measure of earned impressions), reach (as a measure of owned impressions), Net Sentiment (whether consumer emotions are positive or negative), and Brand Passion (a weighted average that combines Net Sentiment with Passion Intensity, i.e., the degree of emotion expressed).

We looked at 60 top airlines globally in 2016, analyzing in all languages of communication, with a focus on customer experiences as a category rather than different industries; This is because not all the airlines we examined originate in the U.S. Our data explores these airlines based on:

  • In-flight Comforts/Experience
  • Customer Service
  • Cancellations and (Emotional) Baggage
  • Travel Search Engines
  • Rewards Programs

Indexing and social ranking is an average measure of actual position for each metric, with the largest, most positive, or most passionate brands ranking first. Here’s a peek at what we learned:

Best in class isn’t restricted to first class

Positive sentiment abounded for all seating classes, from coach to business to first class – even for airlines that don’t offer first class, like Southwest. Consumers raved about “first class” experiences – proving you don’t need to match feature-for-feature to compete in your industry.

What matters – always – is the love your customers feel for the level of service your brand provides. JetBlue was the highest performing airline with regard to overall social rank.

Meanwhile, American Airlines and Delta were tops in volume of conversation for first class, with United achieving that benchmark for seating in coach.

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Travelers shared their love on social with noted comparisons to other airlines – which is great intel for competing airline brands to take to heart. If your brand is mentioned as “less than” in a certain area, you can easily see where you need to improve.

A miracle with amenities

Louis CK’s rant about in-flight expectations may be correct, but it doesn’t change a thing: Travelers expect certain comforts when they fly, and it’s up to airlines to provide – or lose out to those that do.

We examined three topics in detail: Wi-Fi, airport lounges, and airline food, but also included more generalized conversation about in-flight comfort, including seats and legroom. Somewhat surprisingly, legroom wasn’t a topic that generated much discussion, perhaps falling into the overarching topic of “seats” – which accounted for 95% of the conversation across brands with respect to location, size and comfort.

Where legroom did get serious love was with JetBlue and Hawaiian Airlines. Passengers were impressed with both legroom and seat comfort there.

hawaiian air

JetBlue actually achieved high marks in all three of the comfort topics we followed – Wi-Fi, lounges, and food – with Net Sentiment for lounges particularly high. Virgin America also hit this triple love milestone.

Not everything was perfect for the brands we analyzed, but negative sentiment is sometimes just an opportunity to answer consumers’ needs. For instance, though Hawaiian Airlines’ passengers raved about their extra legroom, they don’t love the lack of Wi-Fi, and shared posts asking when or if the airline plans to offer this service. If Hawaiian Airlines addresses this need specifically with their customers, they’ll be loved all the more. Not just because their guests will now have in-flight Wi-Fi, but because they’ll know they were heard. They’ll know their opinions matter.

Given that 21% of all emotion posts mention the word “thank,” consumers clearly appreciate when airline brands meet – or exceed – their needs.

In-flight is just part of the experience

As much as we wish all feedback was positive, air travel is rife with complications – sometimes beyond even the best airline’s control. Where you can take control, however, is in your approach to maintaining awareness of, and solving, customer issues. Real-time social media listening is a must, as is a timely response to any problems that crop up.

Airline brands must also consider the indirect traveler issues their staff will be faced with – because even if you aren’t the reason a passenger is late or cranky, you will be the one dealing with those emotions once they’re at your gate or on board your aircraft. A problem well-solved can create a more loyal customer than even the most frequent flier who’s never had an issue.

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Negative sentiment surrounding gate agents and flight attendants was pretty widespread. One solution is to remember those employees are an extension of your customer service team. If they’re not educated and empowered to solve any consumer complaint in the moment, they should be.

The most passionate discussion was inspired by lost baggage, though the bulk of social conversation revolved around cancellations and delays. All the airlines we researched could improve in these areas, but standouts on the positive side were – again – Virgin America and JetBlue, as well as Alaska Airlines.

By the way, adding to the list of potential problems airlines inherit are travel search engines. Though your brand isn’t directly connected to these search engines, the impact for good or bad certainly trickles down to you. And as part of the purchase journey, it’s critical to know what drives consumers to opt for this solution, and how they feel about the experience.

Our data shows Kayak, Priceline, and Expedia had the largest share of voice for each airline, with the highest overall average Net Sentiment score going to Kayak. Priceline, on the other hand, had the most negative customer conversation, with the lowest Net Sentiment score predominantly associated with American Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines. This is something for both these airlines to dig into and address with their audiences, perhaps recommending another search engine, or some kind of direct ticketing offer.

After all, it’s the little things that truly set one airline apart from another. And it’s clear on social media those are the things consumers care most about as well.

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How you respond to consumers’ comments – and especially their complaints – is everything. Keeping a real-time eye on social media is crucial to your airline’s success. But you can’t stop with knowing there are problems – you have to act on those insights just as quickly. When you do, it’s nothing but blue skies ahead.

For more information, including our Airline Love List, read the complete Social Media Industry Report 2017: Airlines, or get in touch today for a demo of NetBase’s industry-recognized platform.

NetBase Brand Passion Report 2016- Top 100 Global Brand Love List

Image from James Wang

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