Airports promote, reassure on Twitter
Expert: Airports able to offer information ‘in a much friendlier way.’
Before arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Joe Carella, the assistant dean of executive education at the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona’s Phoenix campus, checks the airport’s Facebook page.
The airport also has a Twitter handle, @PHXSkyHarbor, with more than 21,000 followers. That account toggles between passenger needs and promotion of airport services. Over Memorial Day weekend, it mollified one passenger who complained about rudeness, and that was followed by another who wanted to know if PlayStation 4s are allowed in airplane cabins. (They are.)
“The goal is to communicate with customers with timely relevant information and promote services,” said Heather Lissner, an airport spokeswoman.
With airplanes often filled almost to the brim and air travel increasingly unpredictable, airports have begun using social media to communicate with passengers.
The hope is to turn what the industry calls dwell time, the two to three hours that passengers spend between curbside check-in and boarding, into a positive experience — one that can be lucrative for the airport.
“They want to make sure the passenger feels his or her time and money is well spent,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Travel Group.
The most recent study on airports and social media, “The Power of Social Media for Airports,” conducted in 2013 by management consultants LeighFisher, found that nearly a third of airports worldwide maintained Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts. European and Canadian airports were the leading users.
Travel experts said they see social media as replacing antiquated passenger communications. “Instead of giant screens and inaudible public address systems, the airports are present-
ing information in a much friendlier way,” said Paul Tumpowsky, chief executive of Skylark, a travel agency in New York.
Passenger experiences with social media, however, run the gamut from positive to largely nonexistent.
Samantha Aguilar, a corporate travel manager in Phoenix, said social media makes her job easier by enabling her to anticipate problems for employees flying into Phoenix Sky Harbor.
In November, gates in Terminal 4 were closed for several hours after an unattended bag was discovered and required further inspection. The information was first reported on social media. “I don’t have to wait for official notification,” she said. “It’s realtime information.”
On a trip of her own in October, she had free time before joining the line for security screening. Checking her phone, she saw a posting for the Phoenix Airport Museum and stopped in to see the exhibits.
Others said social media helped avoid delays. Bob Swindell, president and chief executive of the economic development organization Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, flies from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and relies on that airport’s Twitter account (@FLLflyer) for emergency weather updates.
Before he gets a notice from Delta Air Lines, “I have notice from the airport,” he said.
Still, the social media efforts of the airports are dwarfed by those of the airlines, which count likes and followers in the millions. On Facebook, Delta has a total of nearly 4 million likes and people who follow it. And it has 1.9 million followers on Twitter. American Airlines (@AmericanAir) regularly tweets to its 1.47 million Twitter followers.
At least one expert sees these efforts as an antidote to the stress of traveling. “Airports can’t control the check-in standards for the airline and can’t control security for luggage,” said Steven Carvell, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration.
The Transportation Security Administration also has a social media presence. The agency has maintained a Twitter feed (@AskTSA) since September 2015 and an account on Facebook Messenger (AskTSA) since July 2016. It has fielded 305,000 questions, largely about permitted and prohibited items and its PreCheck expedited security program.
Using either site, a registered PreCheck user can contact TSA for assistance if the number does not appear on a boarding pass. With details provided by the passenger (full name, known traveler number and airline confirmation number), “we’re able to work with our Secure Flight team to identify the issue and then contact their airline to update their information,” Jennifer Plozai, a TSA spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
The agency also maintains an Instagram account, @ tsa, that has grown to more than 780,000 followers from about 400,000 a year ago. It posts photos of confiscated contraband (agents confiscate about 70 firearms in carry-on bags each week) interspersed with images of dogs that detect explosives.
Bob Burns, public affairs specialist for the TSA, who runs the site, invites passenger comments. “It’s humanizing the bureaucracy,” he said.