Thinking Tech

Can United Airlines raise its Twitter grade?

Can United Airlines raise its Twitter grade?

Posting in Technology

Twitter messages for United remain overwhelmingly negative. Here's a mild example: "Ouch, United Airlines just canceled UA7973, that means I will spend 9 hours in Richmond Airport..." Conversely, tweets about "Southwest Airlines" are consistently positive. "Loving southwest airlines, heading home" is not atypical. That's proof consumers can like airlines.. by John Dodge

With a spate of negative publicity and a virtual feeding frenzy on Twitter, the world fifth largest airline has `fessed up to mistakes in handling musician Dave Carroll after United Airlines broke his $3,500 guitar. And Carroll's immensely popular "United Breaks Guitars" Youtube video is now used in United customer service training, according to United spokeswoman Robin Urbansky.

"We made a number of mistakes that made great fodder for the videos. We are using the video in training," she said in a phone interview yesterday. "Agents have since been provided with a better way to be more responsive."

Out since July 6, "United Breaks Guitars" is up to 4,860,064 views and has drawn 20,848 comments , most of them railing against United. A second of three promised songs from Carroll and named United Song 2 is scheduled to appear appear on Youtube next Tuesday (see my interview with Carroll from last week).

Using the power of Internet video and his considerable musical talents, Carroll made the world's fifth largest airline look arbitrary, callous and impenetrable in mishandling his claim for compensation. Perhaps the next song should be "Musician Breaks Airline." Carroll has managed to entertain and bring together thousands of  travelers who have issues with United and airlines in general. In the process, he's made a name for himself.

Admitting mistakes is one thing, but changing behavior is another. Twitter messages searching "United Airlines' on Tweetdeck this morning remain overwhelmingly negative. Here's a mild example: "Ouch, United Airlines just canceled UA7973, that means I will spend 9 hours in Richmond Airport..."

Conversely, tweets about "Southwest Airlines" are consistently positive.  "Loving southwest airlines, heading home" is not atypical. That's proof consumers can like airlines.

Urbansky offered few specifics about new guidelines for baggage agents except to say  "they can now escalate serious concerns." The problem, she explained, was that Carroll failed to meet United's rule that broken or lost luggage must be reported within 24 hours after landing. She also said the company has to protect itself from "fraud" which I assume to mean bogus claims.

United Airlines says 99.95 per cent of the bags it carries arrive on time, undamaged and where they are supposed to.

The representation in the video that baggage handlers routinely and deliberately toss luggage around is false.

"It was an anomaly and unintentional accident. We are transporting thousands of bags every day including everything from fine wine to musical instruments," she said, adding that 99.95 per cent of them arrive at their  destination undamaged and on time.

Asked if the baggage handler who allegedly broke Carroll's guitar had been identified or disciplined, she said she did not know.

Carroll's video wasn't so much about United breaking his guitar as it was the airline's numb skull response. With the exception of the videos and songs, Carroll has been respectful of United which he says has neither intimated,  threatened him or asked him to pull the videos.

Does United regrets the videos? "No, it's struck a chord with us," Urbansky said.

The airline is taking its lumps in the court of consumer opinion and moving on. It'll be interesting to see if it can raise its Twitter grade in the coming months.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure