OPINION: Disruption management in the social media age

I heaved a sigh of relief as I heard the satisfying beep of the reader the agent used to scan my boarding pass. I had made my Air France flight to Paris, but just by a whisker, after the gate was officially closed on the departure displays.

It was the Easter long weekend, and the SimpliFlying team had gathered in Budapest for our quarterly company retreat. The team had already flown in, and I was the last one planning to get to Budapest, via Brussels. When I approached the Brussels Airlines check-in counter, it seemed eerily empty for an evening flight.

My fears were confirmed when the agent told me: “Sir, your flight to Brussels is delayed, and you might miss your onward connection. Please proceed to the sales counter and they’ll help you out.”

My heart sank, as I scampered towards a snaking line at the Brussels Airlines counter, manned by a third-party handling agent who seemed barely out of her teens. I did not get a good feeling about it.

There were six people ahead of me, and in just a few minutes, 10 more joined behind me. I was already connected to the airport wi-fi, and checking my flight status on the TripIt app. Ironically, it still showed as on time. I asked my team to help me look for alternative flights to Budapest – there was a Lufthansa flight via Munich, but it was full, possibly since all passengers before me were re-booked on that flight.

There was another Air France flight, via Paris, which was departing in 30min. I had already been in the queue for 20min and it had not moved at all. I was sceptical about making it.

Then I decided to practise what we preach at SimpliFlying – I tweeted that I was hoping to make my connection to Budapest, and mentioned @flyingbrussels – the airline’s Twitter account. Exactly 7min after my tweet, the airline replied, “We’re looking into a solution at the moment. We’ll reply as soon as possible.”

That gave me a glimmer of hope.

I immediately sent them my PNR details over a Direct Message, which is a private message on Twitter, to facilitate the process. About 4min after the original message, Brussels Airlines tweeted again, “We’ve re-booked you on the Air France flight at 18:15. Can you make it to the gate in time?”

A shiver ran down my spine as I replied in the affirmative, and tried to locate the Air France counters, only to realise that they were at the other end of the terminal. It was 17:50 when I reached the counter. The agent told me that the flight was closed. By now, Brussels Airlines had sent me the new ticket number via Twitter. I showed it to the agent and requested him to issue my boarding pass. He shrugged, and called the boarding gate.

A minute later, with boarding pass in my hand, I was running towards the security checkpoint. I finally reached the boarding gate 9min before the departure time.

As we flew into the Parisian sunset, I could imagine what would have happened had I not tweeted, and if Brussels Airlines was not monitoring and replying actively.

Brussels Airlines is a member of Star Alliance, and Air France in SkyTeam. They don’t codeshare on this route. An outsourced agent probably didn’t have the authority to issue a ticket on another airline. She would have then checked for availability on the Lufthansa flight, and that being full, I would have had no choice but to fly the next day.

A similar scenario would have repeated with almost every passenger in the queue at that time. With only one agent to handle a whole flight of missed connections, tempers would fray fast. Moreover, the queue was still growing when I ran for my flight. Certainly not an ideal scenario, but an oft-repeated one.

In the age of the connected traveller, an airline that chooses to focus passenger communications resources on social media can alleviate anxiety at the airport. Imagine if there were signs at the counters, telling disrupted passengers to tweet to the airline to save time. They would have been given more options, and be helped sooner, since the team at headquarters would have more authority, and would surely be larger.

Social media strategy, when done well, has the potential to eliminate a lot of operational bottlenecks in the airline business. What Brussels Airlines did by re-booking me via Twitter is just a glimpse into the future of disruption management and customer service.

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying, one of the largest airline marketing strategy firms, which has worked with over 60 airlines and airports. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.