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 she'd forgotten to order a wheelchair.
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 (at)LizOwenLA?" he asked, referring to her Twitter handle. He offered her a seat in a waiting wheelchair, which he'd 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, like the one Owen got. If you carry a smartphone, these tools can lead to a better experience during the upcoming holiday travel season -- 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 don't respond as quickly as Virgin reacted to Owen. In that sense, it's 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 company's Facebook page isn't always enough to get you noticed. "A lot of travel brands want to help," says Twitter spokeswoman Rachael Horwitz. "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 company's attention. But that doesn't guarantee that a company will reply, says Horwitz.
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 you're a real person.
That doesn't necessarily mean that you'll 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." It's possible to instantly measure how important a user is by checking his or her score on Klout, a website that measures people's new-media credibility.
As it turns out, Owen's 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, she'd 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 America's social media guest relations manager, Tony Amrich, happened to see Owen's plea for help on the day she was flying to Los Angeles. He phoned the airline's ticket counter at Dulles International Airport, ensuring that she had a wheelchair.
As social media have evolved, so have Virgin America's methods of communicating with passengers, Amrich says. Today, the airline is "transitioning" from talking by phone and e-mail 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, I'm right there with the guest, working on solutions -- or just saying, 'Love you back,' " he says.
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 can also 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. I've 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 (at)elliottdotorg on Twitter, and I'm happy to answer any questions.
But I can also 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. They're all free to use, but a word of warning: They can be addictive.
But that's another story.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)