How Airline Customer Service Must Adapt to the Age of Outrage

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part exploration of the fraught relationship between the modern traveller and airlines — and the paradox at the heart of their relationships. Today’s connected travellers are quick to outrage and even quicker to grab the cheapest fare. On the other hand, airlines must appease them, offer competitive fares, and not water down their product or services — and, of course, turn a profit. How can airlines survive the age of outrage? Read the second part here.

When social networking sites (or social media) starting growing at a phenomenal pace about five years ago, they were heralded as the new voice of those who had previously gone unheard. Ordinary people could finally rise — and find supporting voices — against companies, governments, injustices. Suddenly, Facebook and Twitter became powerful tools in the hands of those who had previously been conveniently ignored.

Stories became more important than people and organisations. These stories — especially if they were personal stories of struggle against injustices — found resonance far and wide, and were shared at a frantic pace across these platforms. Emotional connections fuelled the growth and popularity of social media.

Today, 1.6b people use Facebook; almost a billion use WhatsApp; 800m use Facebook Messenger; many more millions use Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Snapchat.

Stories are still as important. Personal experiences are the cornerstone of popular, shareable content on social media. Of course, as platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have evolved, so has their use — and abuse.

Users are now inevitably afflicted with a sense of entitlement and power, knowing that social media offers them unprecedented amplification for their complaints. (Remember the British Airways promoted tweet incident?) As more users have joined, these voices have grown shriller. Almost anything can now be an ingredient for outrage. Social media has, almost unwittingly, ushered in the age of outrage.

This brings us to a paradox and a challenge. The paradox is that in its current manifestation social media is important (because of how it has brought in a new paradigm of communication) and unimportant (because of the rapid growth of trolls and wilful abusers of its benefits). After all, if everyone has a complaint, whose complaint is the most important?. Recent conversations with our airline clients have revealed that many people are taking to social media to complain and rant because they can.

The challenge for airlines, then, is to offer social customer service that serves their goals efficiently. In the years to come, airlines must be prepared to answer the following questions:

  1. Do you have an effective complaint filtering and prioritisation mechanism in place?
  2. Do you have a troll-deflection strategy?
  3. Have you moved on from simply being responsive on social media to focusing on resolution rates (speed as well as a percentage of closed cases)?
  4. Are you actively working on building social advocates who will support you, and shield you, online?
  5. Is there an investment in building a repository of quickly accessible information — online or via mobile apps — that potentially reduces online enquiries? Helping automate certain types of complaint resolution processes will also be useful.

What is the future of social customer service for airlines? Tell us in the comments below, tweet us @simpliflying or write to the author at

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