Dear Airlines, Passengers Register Complaints on Social Media First

Are social media conversations a precursor to consumer outrage?

In the world of corporate capitalism, social media is the new watchdog for consumer rights.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of U.S. commercial aviation. Earlier this year, social media was up in arms following a viral video showing an United Airline passenger being roughed up and dragged from his seat and off the plane by officers of Chicago Department of Aviation. What followed was an extended PR nightmare for United that finally ended with a settlement between the airline and David Dao, the passenger and plaintiff.

What was shocking was not just the incident itself, but how it spread. In years past, the whole event may have come and gone without ever affecting the company’s overall reputation. But in the age of social media, that is no longer the case. Phone-wielding passengers quickly captured and shared the footage, and in less time than it takes to fly from Chicago to Louisville, the incident had already pinballed across social media.
Such is the new, social-first landscape of air travel. Just as the industry has grown from 745 million passengers in 2006 to 823 million passengers in 2016, consumer complaints against airline companies have soared. Crimson Hexagon looked at social media conversations involving the top five airlines in the country — Southwest, American Airlines, Delta, United Airlines, and JetBlue — from 2010 to 2016, and found that consumers are seeking flight experiences that can do more than just get them from point A to point B.
The conversations point to a growing outrage among consumers for a number of reasons including delays, unfair bumping, efficient baggage handling and costs. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, complaints about airlines rose to a fifteen year high in 2015.
But the medium might be as notable as the message — passengers are bringing this outrage to social media first. In this post, we analyze the nature of consumer complaints about airlines by highlighting:

  • The correlation of customer dissatisfaction posts and complaints
  • The major topics of negative posts on social media
  • The impact of these complaints on brand health

Tweet your troubles first

When we looked at data on the five airline brands starting from 2010, we found that they all had similar social conversation volume. But in time, some leaders emerged. Conversation on American Airlines rose the fastest, partially due to the heavily speculated merger with U.S. Airways in October 2015 and a Brussels airport attack that occurred near the American Airlines check-in area in March 2016. Southwest and United Airlines had similar conversation growth rates. While Delta caught up to JetBlue in discussion volume from 2010 to 2011, Delta trailed JetBlue from 2011 to 2016.
But a large portion of the conversation about airlines were consumer complaints.

When we looked at the number of passenger complaints on social and compared that to the consumer complaints registered with the U.S. Department of Transportation, we found a positive correlation between the number of social posts about customer dissatisfaction and complaints per 100,000 passengers, reported by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
The airlines that have fewer complaints per 100,000 passengers are also the airlines that have the lowest post volume about poor customer service. By looking at social media data, a brand is able to gauge customers’ pain points, finding out what is working for them and what is not. Overall, the customer dissatisfaction conversation makes up 2 percent of total conversation, or 20k posts, of negative discussion.

What’s the hate about, mate?

As we have established, there is a positive correlation between customer dissatisfaction post volume on social media and passenger complaint data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. This allows us to say with some confidence that consumers voice their discontent on social media first. But can we know more about what they are actually saying? When we drew up a word cloud for negative posts, adjectives like “awful,” “horrible,” and “rude” are used to describe their experience.

People negatively discuss the unpleasant aspects of the flying experience the overpriced tickets, cumbersome delays, long hours, substandard customer service, and issues relating to luggage and seating.

Social conversations helped us identify that flight delays irk passengers the most and are the foremost reason a trip becomes unpleasant and painful. Among brands, Southwest receives the most discussion about delays, though the gap in the number of posts about delays for each airline is small. JetBlue receives the least discussion about delays. When it comes to cancellations, Delta ranks first, followed by Southwest. For customer dissatisfaction, there isn’t a large gap in the number of posts for the airlines, but American Airlines receives the highest number of posts per million. For lost baggage/poor baggage handling, American Airlines ranks first.

Take charge to cause change

All the consumer grievances expressed on social media are not for nothing. Mirroring the trend of negative feedback on these forums, reports from the U.S. Department of Transportation suggested that complaints about airline service are up. In the first six months of 2017, the department has received 9,026 consumer complaints,  a 7.8 percent increase from the first six months of last year.
Has this outrage brought about any change? It certainly looks like it: The 12 largest airlines in the country recorded the lowest levels of passenger bumping in 23 years 44 out of every million passengers in the second quarter of 2017, down from 62 out of every million passengers in the year-ago period.
Additionally, there is even a new legislative proposal aimed at protecting passengers from getting bumped from overbooked flights. The bill, proposed by Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa also requires the Transportation Department to clarify compensation for passengers who are denied boarding on flights.


Never before has social media’s impact been so clearly measurable as in the case of commercial aviation. Today, flying is more than getting from one place to another fast. Along the way, there are multiple factors that can make a trip either complicated and cumbersome or efficient and enjoyable. And the onus is on the airlines to make sure the scales don’t tip too much in the wrong direction. Conversations on social media can help uncover some insights about what passengers care about and why, since the instinct these days is to tweet about it first.
For more information on today’s airline industry, download our report below.

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