When travel expert Laura Begley Bloom forgot her laptop on a flight last month, she threw up a tweet in hopes of a small Christmas miracle.
Her prayers were answered.
Bloom, who is chief content officer at Family Traveller, saw firsthandthe power of social media channels and why travelers are turning to their phone apps like Twitter and Facebook to get in touch with airlines about their travel problems.
Bloom is far from alone, though her success story isn't that common. Airlines (some more than others) continue to wrangle the onslaught of tweets, DMs, and Facebook Messages coming in from frustrated flyers, many who hope their pleas will get noticed.
But even with air carriers going all in on customer service programs with 24/7 assistance, social media has its limits.
Conversocial, a social customer service software, looked at top air carriers and how their social customer service methods are working. The report mainly reviewed how often and how quickly (or slowly) airline social channels got in touch with passengers on Twitter.
The industry average for social media responsiveness was just over 25 percent this year. Last year it was 21 percent — a small bump, but not enough to make tweeting a travel panacea.
"There's a lot of noise that doesn’t warrant a response," Conversocial CEO and founder Joshua March said in a call last week. So airlines responding to a quarter of inbound complaints isn't as paltry as it sounds.
Even so, just a quick response for something beyond an airline's control — like a massive snow storm — increases customer satisfaction and breeds loyalty. But for higher satisfaction levels, a problem needs to be resolved, March said, and that isn't always possible.
Airlines are quickly overwhelmed on social, where stakes are higher due to the public nature of the interactions.
"They don’t want to look bad," she said.
Rather than try to make every last traveler happy, airlines have begun to draw lines. Bloom isn't seeing travel refunds or coupons handed out too freely. Mostly it's advice or just reassurance that someone, somewhere is listening to your horror story of a trip.
Even if our travel woes aren't fully addressed, travelers at least have airlines' or airports' ears.
"We have a lot more leverage now as consumers," Bloom said. "We have a voice that we didn't have in the past."
Air travel might feel like it's improving with the bevy of social media channels at our fingertips, but we've reached something close to peak social media assistance.
Not surprisingly United was one of the slower responders to social posts, taking 1 hour 34 minutes on average to respond to customers. The best top North American airline was JetBlue with a speedy 4 minute 50 second response time.
When something like a busted entertainment system crosses JetBlue's social channels, the team responds — and ASAP.
Oh no! Please DM your six-letter confirmation code and we can send you a little something for the inconvenience.
— JetBlue Airways (@JetBlue) January 4, 2018
United is lagging. Timing can be everything when trying to make a connection or literally fly across the country.
"We do see a correlation between speed of resolution and customer satisfaction," March said.
Airlines are trying to listen to our grumblings and helping as much as they can, but it's usually not enough.
Delta — who scored a 31.3 percent response rate and just over 30 minutes to respond on average — has been pumping more staffing and resources into their social and digital channels.
"There's been a tremendous increase of volume of messages year over year," Eric Carlsen, Delta general manager of digital customer engagement, said in a phone call.
There's also more tools than every for customers to reach airlines.
In the past few years, Carlsen said he's seen huge growth on Facebook Messenger. Facebook has been pushing Messenger as a business-to-consumer platform, and chat app WhatsApp for businesses is expected to be a game-changer for digital customer service.
Another new tool, Apple Business Chat, will seamlessly connect Siri to your complaints and make online customer service that much more accessible. Outside the U.S., Carlsen said WeChat is the go-to platform to connect with the airline.
Conversocial recorded a 100 percent growth rate of Messenger use from March through August 2017 and a 50 percent increase in Twitter DMs. These numbers show how easy and convenient it is to log onto well-used apps and start talking to a company.
March from Conversocial sees automated bots used in a very specific way as the next step in advancing online customer service beyond the mostly tapped-out capabilities of social media support.
"A bot should be handling super simple stuff," he explained.
But bots can't replicate the satisfaction a customer gets from knowing another person has heard their complaint. The bots can save time doing simple things, but then usually hand people off to customer service agent — with your flight info and details about your problem already laid out.
Delta's Carlsen thinks social media is capable of helping travelers even more than it already does — it might seem like these tools have hit max helpfulness, but it's only getting started, he believes.
"There's tons of runway left for improvement here," he said.
For Delta, Carlsen believes passengers are still testing out social platforms. As people start to see that an airline will get back to them quicker on Twitter than on a phone call: "I think we'll continue to see more of a channel shift."
"Savvy travelers will figure out any line of communication they can," travel expert Bloom said. "It’s so frustrating to take the traditional route of calling the 800 numbers and be on hold for an hour."
So even if every message doesn't get answered or a response isn't that helpful or timely, at least social media has given us some feeling of control. And something serendipitous like an airplane cleaner spotting your tweet about a lost laptop is more likely to happen.
As to #travelgoals, the report found 43 percent of airlines want to make social media customer service a top priority for 2018. So keep tweeting — it just might make your flight that much better. Delta encouraged tweeting, messaging, tagging or posting to the airline as much as possible — the more volume coming in, the more resources the airline will eventually focus for social communication.
But still, social media can only carry airlines so far.