How Twitter got me home

Flight delayed? Try tweeting a seat

A friend with us in New Orleans finally got through and was able to rebook us on a new flight — nearly a week later.
With the airline’s reservation agents overwhelmed by calls, it seemed pointless to keep trying by phone. So I tried a novel tactic, a stab in the corporate dark.
I appealed for help on Twitter.
“Any way you can help rebook our flight from New Orleans back to Boston?” I wrote in a direct message to the airline’s Twitter handle, providing our flight information and booking number.
“Looking to get on the first flight back,” I wrote, hopefully.
Like most companies, airlines are increasingly monitoring social media to respond to questions and complaints.
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About an hour later, I received a response. It seemed like it had come from a robot, complete with a link to the airline’s website and phone number. “You can rebook online . . . or give us a call,” the message read, “and one of our agents will be able to assist you.”
I responded that I had been trying to call without success, and it wasn’t clear how I’d rebook a canceled flight online. I explained our predicament again, and that we were looking at a long wait to get home. 
Soon after, I received another message. This time it was clear that a human was responding. An agent from JetBlue said there might be an option for us to get back a day earlier. “Are you willing to split up if needed?” the agent wrote.
My wife and I were traveling with our 2-year-old, who thrives on jumping on seats and bouncing on tray tables, running up and down the aisle, and occasionally lobbing stuff over the seats. Neither of us was eager to travel alone with him.
I suggested to the agent he could sit on our laps. “The earliest we can get back, the better,” I wrote.
The airline’s responses came more quickly now.
Less than a half an hour later, I was told our son had to have his own seat. “Give us a few minutes while we look into availability,” the agent wrote.
Seven minutes later, a new tweet arrived, saying a flight via New York was available three days later and would get us back to Boston at midnight. “We’ll need to hurry,” the agent wrote. “Let us know ASAP.”
“Yes,” I responded. “Thanks!”
A confirmation e-mail arrived a few minutes later.
Like most companies, airlines are increasingly monitoring social media to respond to questions and complaints.
When flights are canceled, social media offers a kind of escape valve for airlines to reduce pressure on the agents taking calls.
“During storms, customers are constantly checking on the status of their flights, and we’d really rather they didn’t call in for that,” said Morgan Johnston, a spokesman who oversees social media strategy for JetBlue, in a telephone interview several days later. “Using social media allows us to keep the phone lines less tied up.”
During the blizzard, JetBlue canceled about 1,000 flights to and from the Northeast. The company employs thousands of reservation agents who received so many calls that many customers had to wait more than an hour to get through.
On a typical day, the airline receives about 1,000 mentions or queries on Twitter; during the blizzard, it was seven times that.
JetBlue’s social media team — about 25 specially trained reservation agents who work in shifts around the clock — tripled their number of replies on Twitter during the blizzard.
“A lot of what we do is reassuring customers,” Johnston said. “We let people know where to find information.”
Their social media team usually directs tweeted queries to the airline’s website or to its telephone reservation agents, but they also address issues directly, especially during storms.
Johnston said his team responds to every question sent on Twitter or Facebook, often within 10 minutes. Corresponding through social media, he said, allows agents to be more efficient than on the phone, because they can hold several conversations at once.
It works now, he said, because there is a limited number of people seeking help through social media.
“We’d need more people to scale this up,” he said.
But there are potential problems with booking a flight using social media. Johnston said his team prefers to handle Twitter conversations that involve booking numbers and other passenger information through direct messages, which are private, unlike other tweets.
“There are risks inherent in having conversations in public,” he said.
The next day, I decided to check in again on Twitter to see if any seats had materialized on an earlier flight.
Thirteen minutes later, I received a response in the same thread as all my previous tweets, allowing any agent to understand my predicament without having to explain everything again.
One seat had opened for a direct flight back on the same day we had been booked to fly home. “Feel free to check back to see if anything [more] opens up,” the agent wrote.
A few hours later, I wrote back, and in 11 minutes, an agent responded. There were now three seats on the direct flight. JetBlue e-mailed us our new flight information shortly afterward.
I continued to check back for an earlier flight, and the agents always responded within a few minutes.
When we finally boarded the flight home three days after we were supposed to leave, we found a nice surprise.
JetBlue put us in a row near the front — in seats with extra legroom — that would usually have cost about $50 extra per seat.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.