Liz Owen needed help, and she needed it fast.
She had rescheduled a flight from Washington to Los Angeles on Virgin America to avoid Superstorm Sandy, which was about to slam into the East Coast. But shed forgotten to order a wheelchair.
Owen, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington, had recently broken her foot, which was in a cast.
I had been on the phone on hold with Virgin America for well over an hour, she said.
Halfway to the airport, she decided to send Virgin America a tweet a message on the microblogging service Twitter.
Within minutes, an airline representative messaged her back, offering to help. When she pulled up to the curb, a Virgin America representative greeted her. Are you @LizOwenLA? he asked, referring to her Twitter handle. He offered her a seat in a waiting wheelchair, which hed borrowed from another airline.
When it comes to customer service, no one likes to wait. And new Internet-based technologies that some travel companies are embracing promise an almost instant response, such as the one Owen got. If you carry a smartphone, these tools can lead to a better travel experience if you know how to use them.
Not every company offers this shortcut to a quicker resolution, and even those with a sophisticated social-media presence dont respond as quickly as Virgin reacted to Owen. In that sense, its very much like any offline transaction: It matters who you are.
But instead of presenting your elite frequent-flier memberships for preferred treatment, you need to show that you understand the rules of social media.
Among air carriers, Southwest Airlines and Virgin America have reputations for lightning-fast response to customer-service problems noted online.
A recent survey by the social media analytics firm Socialbakers found that as an industry, airlines were the second-fastest to reply to customers on sites such as Facebook, with an average response time of 188 minutes. (Telecommunications companies were faster.) Some carriers, such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, were significantly faster, replying to customers in less than half an hour.
But simply sending a tweet or posting to a companys Facebook page isnt always enough to get you noticed.
A lot of travel brands want to help, Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz said. But you have to look like a real customer.
For starters, you need an account on Facebook, Google+ or Twitter the three major social-media sites to capture a travel companys attention. But that doesnt guarantee that a company will reply, Horwitz says.
On Twitter, for example, your account comes with a default avatar that looks like an egg. Simply uploading a photo and adding some profile information will set you apart from spammers and ensure that a company knows youre a real person.
That doesnt necessarily mean that youll get a speedy response. Just as elite-level frequent fliers get preferred treatment, so also do users who have the greatest social clout. Travel companies eye your social-media profile, looking for engagement (how active you are online) and the number of your friends or followers. Its possible to instantly measure how important a user is by checking his or her score on Klout, a website that measures peoples new-media credibility.
As it turns out, Owens Twitter profile displayed her photo and suggested that she spent a fair amount of time communicating with other users. Owen also had a previous relationship with Virgin America: Two years ago, shed been a passenger on a transcontinental flight that made an emergency landing in Chicago. In that case, as well, Twitter was instrumental in getting her concerns, and those of other customers, addressed. In the offline world, you might say that Owen and Virgin America were pen pals.
Virgin Americas social media guest relations manager, Tony Amrich, happened to see Owens plea for help on the day she was flying to Los Angeles. He phoned the airlines ticket counter at Dulles International Airport, ensuring that she had a wheelchair.
As social media have evolved, so have Virgin Americas methods of communicating with passengers, Amrich says. Today, the airline is transitioning from talking by phone and email to communicating via Twitter and Facebook. That allows the company to resolve a problem faster and often better.
Instead of potentially apologizing for a missed opportunity, Im right there with the guest, working on solutions or just saying, Love you back, he said.
Sites like Twitter are evolving, too. Its latest user experience places a heavier emphasis on images, so now, instead of just telling a company about a service problem, you also can show it to them (and to all your friends who happen to be watching).
Social media could change customer service, not just in the travel industry but for any business. Ive used Twitter to help advise consumers with problems in real time, and I never use it more than during the holidays, when infrequent travelers need quick help.
By the way, you can find me at @elliottdotorg on Twitter, and Im happy to answer any questions.
But I also can see this going sideways, with social media turning into nothing more than a branding opportunity with exceptions made for super-users with high Klout scores. That would be as much of a travesty as the current airline loyalty programs, which similarly segment passengers, rewarding the best customers with plush seats and gourmet food but leaving most others fighting for scraps in the main cabin.
Having a shortcut to better customer service is a powerful incentive to join one of the social-media sites before your next trip. Theyre all free to use, but a word of warning: They can be addictive.
But thats another story.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or troubleshoot your trip through his website, www.elliott.org. Distributed by Tribune Media Services.