When Eric Ryan’s Southwest Airlines flight from Chicago to Detroit was canceled because of a blast of wicked winter weather Tuesday, he turned to the usual sources to rebook.
Ryan, a 32-year-old consultant and frequent flier, tried the airline’s website, but it wouldn’t let him make a new reservation. He called Southwest’s reservations center but got a busy signal.
Frustrated, he appealed to Southwest on Twitter.
“Why is your reservation number busy?” Ryan wrote. “Had a flight canceled today and can’t seem to get through to reschedule. Ridic.”
He got a response from the airline within two minutes.
“It’s a great alternative to reaching out over the phone,” Ryan said.
Airline passengers are increasingly turning to social-media sites such as Twitter to gripe about and resolve travel woes.
At no time has that been more evident than in the past week, when airlines canceled more than 20,000 flights because of weather and new pilot-rest rules, stranding travelers across the country.
Passengers trying to rebook, check flight status, vent about long delays and a lack of free lodging or food, or simply to swear never to fly a particular airline again, flooded airlines’ Twitter accounts. Some airlines have had a hard time keeping up with the volume, producing mixed results for travelers seeking help.
Twitter posts about travel, which from 2012 to 2013 rose 54 percent, to 12 million per week, hit an all-time high during the recent storms, Twitter said, citing research from Topsy, a social-media analytics firm.
Mike De Jesus, who oversees travel accounts at Twitter, said the service is a natural for solving customer-relations issues at businesses such as airlines because it’s a real-time public forum and three out of four regular users use it on a mobile device.
“Most of the bad news that you get as a traveler is at the airport,” he said. “It’s very easy to pull out your phone and tweet something under 140 characters to the brand that you’re frustrated with.”
American Airlines, which last month merged with Tempe-based US Airways, received nearly 13,000 tweets between Friday and Monday, a 35 percent increase over a similar span in early December. The airline, which has a social-media staff of 22, up from a handful a few years ago, added extra shifts to handle the increased volume.
“Pretty intense, I think is the way to describe it,’’ said Jonathan Pierce, American’s director of social communications. “We’re used to ramping our (social media) coverage in response to pockets of weather. This has been a sustained period.”
Southwest Airlines received 12,000 tweets between Thursday and Tuesday, most related to the extreme weather. That is double the usual amount. The worst day was Friday, when it received 3,000 messages, compared with 1,000 per day on average.
“It was basically all hands on deck,’’ said Christi McNeill, project leader for social business and listening at Southwest, which has a social-media staff of seven.
Both American and Southwest have major operations in Chicago, one of the cities with the worst weather woes.
Airlines have some of the highest volumes on Twitter even in normal times, De Jesus said, because they were among the first industries to use the service when it debuted in 2006. He said they have since amassed large followings. Southwest has nearly 1.6 million followers; American and US Airways combined have more than 1 million. Delta has nearly 700,000 between two accounts.
Social-media sites such as Twitter and Facebook are growing dramatically as a customer-service channel across all industries. The percentage of households that posted a customer-service problem on a social-networking site nearly doubled to 35 percent from 2011 to 2013, according to a “customer rage” study released late last year by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University and Customer Care Measurement and Consulting.
Yet such sites, as well as company websites and other Internet outlets, still significantly lag the telephone as the primary medium for customer-service complaints by a ratio of 11-1, according to the study.
The gap is expected to narrow.
“What is it that most people walk around with today that allows people to stay connected? It’s a smartphone,” said Mike Denning, professor of marketing at ASU’s business school. “The social-media communications medium is the mobile device. Twitter allows people to communicate very quickly and very succinctly to a large, large audience.”
The big question is how businesses will respond to the increased volume. Airlines get mixed grades from travelers for their performance during the weather crisis.
For every Eric Ryan, there is an Adam Oestreich. Oestrich, a 25-year-old from Austin, sent a tweet to United Airlines on Saturday when he learned his Sunday-morning flight from Hartford, Conn., to Chicago was canceled. “Hello United website not working,” he said to United via Twitter. “Can’t even get through via phone to be put on hold. Anything you can do to help would be great.”
United responded — on Tuesday morning.
“We’ve been experiencing large volumes on Twitter and our phones,” the airline said in reply. “Please let us know if you still need help.”
Oestreich, who rebooked his flight the old-fashioned way, by driving to the airport and standing in line, told United via Twitter that he was all set with a flight scheduled for today.
“Fingers crossed, because if that flight’s canceled, I’m coming for you. Nicely,” he said.
Even though his career is in social media, this was Oestreich’s first time reaching out to an airline on Twitter.
“It might be the last,” he said.
In a report Tuesday on how airlines have used social media to deal with the weather mess, online travel news and information provider Skift said American, the leader among U.S. airlines in Twitter response times, sent nearly twice as many tweets, 1,869, as its nearest rival on Sunday alone.
Brian Kachinsky, 32, a professional BMX rider who travels frequently, saw a couple of US Airways flights from Chicago to New Orleans canceled this week but gave the airline some Twitter love when it found him a seat on American.
He thinks too many travelers use social media to complain, so he likes to sprinkle in compliments when warranted.
“There’s just so much negativity, and it’s so easy to complain,” he said.