MIAMI — I am fairly savvy when it comes to social media. I have a Facebook account, two Twitter accounts, and an Instagram account, all of which I use a lot to stay in touch with friends and family. I even use Snapchat. Though, to be honest, those are mainly of me walking my dog or incoming updates of the potty-training status of one of my nieces!

I’d never really given any thought to the power of social media from a business perspective until my visit last year to American Airlines’ headquarters on assignment to interview CEO Doug Parker. After leaving Mr. Parker’s office, I was given a quick tour of the 5th and 6th floors which included a very brief walk through their social media hub. I was simply amazed by the scale of the operation and the buzz being generated among the team members as they scurried between workstations and the flat-panel monitors flashing tweets and data from around the airlines’ system. “Something’s going on in Venezuela”, someone remarked, as the bubble charts from Caracas started growing by the minute reflecting tweets from customers concerned about a currency write-off in the troubled Latin American country.

I had to come back to find out more about this part of the airline and was delighted when AA’s director of social media, Jonathan Pierce, carved out most of a Friday to give me a behind-the-scenes look at their social media operation.

A lot more than just photos of 737s with winglets

The Liverpudlian accent is one of the most distinct among the many regional accents of the United Kingdom, but I can tell there is something else mixed in as Jonathan introduces himself with a warm, firm handshake. “Yes, born in Liverpool but raised in Wales – so a bit of a mongrel really,” he chuckles, as we settle in for what turns out to be a highly engaging hour in his 5th-floor office.

Director of AA’s social media team, Jonathan Pierce, watches as SCS rep Lynn Stines responds to a passenger’s missed connection. (Credits: Author)
Director of AA’s social media team, Jonathan Pierce, watches as SCS rep Lynn Stines responds to a passenger’s missed connection. (Credits: Author)

“And the bobble head figure of the Queen?” I inquire, looking over to the window where Her Majesty, rather stern-faced in a bright blue dress, gently bobbles her approval at the slightest vibration from outside.

He laughs. “Yes, she watches over the entire operation. The British roots run deep.”

Pierce has been with American for 16 years, starting off in marketing in a variety of roles. As with most companies, marketing in the early 2000s involved mostly newsletters and direct mail. Then, in early 2011, American started getting into social media with considerable discussion among leadership about where it was headed.

“Amazing,” notes Pierce, “that just over five years ago, American didn’t really have a social media arm. Our presence was really tiny. Back then, we were seeing a few hundred social mentions a day and leadership realized we simply had to get involved. So they created a position which I was fortunate to get.”

Pierce moved to American’s headquarters with a mandate from the company to simply “build it.” The first service assistance position in social media was created in September 2011, and, as he explains with his hands slowly moving away from one another, “it continued to grow, and grow, and grow.”

“For about two years,” Pierce continues, “we drafted employees into this Temporary Duty Assignment – really good, skilled people from reservations and from customer relations. Despite the fact that these were difficult times as we navigated bankruptcy, it was also a time of great opportunity. It became clear, really quickly, that our Monday to Friday, nine-to-five temporary duty assignments would become permanent and, ultimately, a 24/7 operation. It’s simply become a customer expectation as a global airline.”

AA’s social media hub is actually made up of three groups: Social Customer Service, Social Engagement, and Social Insights. The team currently totals 30, which is really quite extraordinary when one considers that the company grew the team through bankruptcy and emerged significantly stronger not just financially but also in terms of its overall brand.

Social Customer Service (SCS) is by far the largest of the three. It’s the 24/7 side of social media which handles everything that is incoming and immediate on the handle@AmericanAir. Annette Hernandez, who leads the 22 SCS reps, says the most important qualification for working in the group, besides having a great understanding of the airline, is passion.

Annette Hernandez, team lead of the 22 SCS reps in the social media department.
Annette Hernandez, team lead of the 22 SCS reps in the social media department. (Credits: Author)

“I know it sounds a bit cheesy, but you have to be passionate about the customer and the customer experience,” Hernandez opines. In just the 15 minutes I see, most of the posts are focused on operations. Missed connections were one of the more common inquiries. The SCS reps really have to have a breadth of knowledge across the airline because, as Hernandez notes, “There are frequently interesting, off-the-wall questions that come across the feed.” As she points to a poster of an AA plane, she continues, “Just last week, we had a customer wanting to know why we had this number of stripes on our tails. What makes this all work is that we really do have an open door with any department at American to get our customers the answers.”

The display screens in the AA social media hub showing the live word cloud (top left), incoming tweets and messages, and incoming geotagged social mentions (bottom right).(Credits: Author)
The display screens in the AA social media hub showing the live word cloud (top left), incoming tweets and messages, and incoming geotagged social mentions (bottom right).(Credits: Author)

SCS is a one-stop shop where travelers can get help with anything from international reservations to baggage. I meet five of the team working the Twitter feed. Many, like Dionne Johnson, joined SCS from reservations, in her case, bringing 31 years of experience to the world of tweets and direct messages (or DMs, as they are called). Collectively, these five almost have a combined 120 years of experience with the company! They have become a very important compliment to the traditional reservations team. I watch as Dionne works with a customer stuck at CLT. He seems quite pleased by the speed of the feedback as Dionne rebooks his flight through DFW.

The Social Engagement (SE) team is led by Katy Phillips and consists of three people who work with about 30 business units within the airline to create “the story.” This includes everything from marketing and promotions to AAdvantage, and from fleet and flight service to AAVacations. They are tasked with generating all of the proactive posts that go onto the social media channels. Pierce explains how they are very focused on finding a balance in content. “We always shoot for balance and breadth to mix up content. It would be a bit dull if all we talked about were fare sales. So, simply put, it’s the engagement team’s job to stay on top of what’s going on, whether it be the launch of a new airplane or route, or a co-sponsored Justin Timberlake concert in New York, and then decide which is the best channel to leverage the content, be it Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, YouTube, Periscope, and so on.”

Katy Phillips, lead of the Social Engagement team, seems pleased with the next big story. (Credits: Author)
Katy Phillips, lead of the Social Engagement team, seems pleased with the next big story. (Credits: Author)

Social Insights (SI) is just one person, Beth Moreland, whose role is to take a 35,000-foot view of everything AA’s customers are saying and create meaningful insights for the business. These insights help guide AA’s decisions, thinking, and action, incorporating anything from what travelers are saying about the AAdvantage program to the length of TSA lines at a particular airport.

Social Engagement lead Katy Phillips keeps a watchful eye over the incoming message boards. (Credits: Author)
Social Engagement lead Katy Phillips keeps a watchful eye over the incoming message boards. (Credits: Author)

“About half my time is spent with the Social Engagement and Social Customer Service teams, informing them what their volume or response time is for any given period,” says Moreland. “I also help Katy’s team with how any of their posts are performing in terms of an engagement score, or what types of posts perform better than others, such as posts with pictures or posts with videos.”

Aaron Wolfe, one of the Social Engagement team members, preparing the next Facebook story. (Credits: Author)
Aaron Wolfe, one of the Social Engagement team members, preparing the next Facebook story. (Credits: Author)
Beth Moreland, who heads up Social Insights, with the 2015 Year in Review infographic. (Credits: Author)
Beth Moreland, who heads up Social Insights, with the 2015 Year in Review infographic. (Credits: Author)

Moreland spends the rest of her time helping other business units across the company, such as external communications, who frequently liaise with the SCS team to better manage real-time issues, or food and beverage, who may want to know what customers are saying about a new menu on AA’s Sydney flights. She has several tools at her disposal that scour the internet for all public mentions of brand keywords, such as American Airlines, AAdvantage, Admirals Club, and oneworld. She shows me a dazzling display of what has been found over the past 24-hours on Twitter, Instagram, RSS feeds, Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, Google+ and YouTube. She notes that about 60-70% of American’s social media conversations occur on Twitter, mostly because of the here-and-now nature of the platform and the fact that many people are talking to AA for customer service reasons, specifically day-of-travel issues. A live word cloud, updated approximately every 30 seconds, gives the entire team a sense of the most relevant and pressing issues across the system.

Moreland also keeps a close eye on American’s competitors, tracking their community sizes and posted content.

“We have a meeting every month where we review the best performing posts for all of our units, but we also look at what everybody else posts and we learn from it. We see some things that other airlines are doing that are just very, very cool, but we also look at situations where they maybe missed the mark on something to ensure that we don’t do something like that.”

Two of Moreland’s most important tasks are to create the social team’s weekly scorecard, an eye-catching infographic that captures brand sentiment and the annual analysis report. For 2015, American had over 5.6 million mentions of either the AA and USAirways brands and 1.6 million tweets and DMs (a rate of about 4,000 per day or 180 per hour) with an average response time of 34 minutes. Forums, like FlyerTalk and, were a close second. Social networks, like Facebook, which is largely a post-trip consumer relations platform, and others like Instagram and YouTube make up the rest of the online coverage.

The 2015 Year in Review infographic. (Credits: American Airlines)
The 2015 Year in Review infographic. (Credits: American Airlines)

“Having Beth in this role,” notes Pierce, “is one of the real reasons why we’ve been successful @AmericanAir. If you don’t know much about social media, you think it’s just a bunch of tweets and posts, but the moment you’re able to translate all of this data into actionable insights that are guiding the business, then you’re providing value to those business units. I really can’t overstate how important it is to the success of the social team that we have officers of the company asking us for a real-time pulse about how an announcement is being received by our customers within hours of it being launched.”

Highly empowered problem-solvers

Since everything happens in real-time, decisions must be made quickly. While the three units work as one cohesive team, each person in the team is truly given the leeway to make immediate decisions to resolve an issue without continually going up-and-down a reporting line.

This point is really driven home to me later in the day during a tour of American’s relatively new Integrated Operations Center (IOC), the operational heartbeat of the airline. The center is appropriately named, for sitting on the control bridge and located right next to the director of flight operations is the SCS team’s second hub, which is fully integrated into the day-of-departure teams at IOC. As Pierce explains, “Having a SCS hub at IOC allows for operations-related information to be cascaded immediately over to the SCS team at HDQ. It simply means that everybody is in the loop from both a business and operational perspective.”

Social Customer Service rep Jill Taylor working incoming tweets at AA’s IOC. (Credits: Author)
Social Customer Service rep Jill Taylor working incoming tweets at AA’s IOC. (Credits: Author)

On the bridge, SCS rep Michelle Chiarillo says that it’s a real advantage having the social media workstations so close to all the operations and flight services teams. “If I get a question about meal service, I am able to just peek over the partition and say ‘hey, can you guys help me out with this food-related question?’ which then allows me to get back to that customer in real-time.”

Brian Forsyth, a system customer service manager who sits right alongside Michelle, relays an interesting story to me about the University of North Texas (UNT) girls’ basketball team who recently flew from DFW to CLT with an onward connection to Charleston (CRW), West Virginia. The SCS team had received the following tweet: “@AmericanAir Can you help us, we are stuck in Charlotte. Is there anything you can do for us?” They were expecting a six hour bus ride after the earlier flight cancellation. It turns out Forsyth was able to get them on a later flight, and the team was able to fly to Charleston on the very next flight, which was only about an hour later. Upon landing in Charleston, the UNT team tweeted back: “Go Mean Green and thanks @AmericanAir.” Forsyth even called the coach to personally check that everything went smoothly.

Back at headquarters, I ask Annette Hernandez whether there are certain “hot” topics that her team sees more frequently than others, or perhaps topics that require especially thoughtful handling.

“Well, we certainly have our list of hot topics,” she notes. “The SCS reps are very aware of sensitive issues, things that can go from being a non-issue to off the charts within 10 minutes, and so we have to manage that really well from the beginning. So the team is trained in all of these hot topics which really mean they are not just customer service reps but are, as I like to call them, ‘super agents.’ They can take care of anything and are empowered to do that.”

Later in the day, I get to spend an hour with Una Maynard who oversees training. She has 25 years with American and a bubbly personality that seems to fit the social media ethos perfectly. I am in one of the conference rooms with five of the SCS team and a very large bowl of chocolates in the middle of the table! It turns out to be much more of an interactive feedback session than a training one. She opens with a tweet from the day before from a customer at LAX: “A big thanks to the super staff @Americanair, LAX. 5 star service. The team got me and my bags on my flight. Fast and friendly.” Maynard then goes through the team’s response, which was “We love to recognize our AATeam for taking great care of you. Please, do you have your record locator?” She then asks the team their thoughts, and there is unanimous agreement – AA’s response on this one just missed the mark. How so? “Why would AA make this customer work?” she asks. “Why are we asking her to find her record locator? Surely we have the tools to find that?”

Training manager Una Maynard prepares for the monthly debrief and feedback session. (Credits: Author)
Training manager Una Maynard prepares for the monthly debrief and feedback session. (Credits: Author)

Maynard goes through several more tweets where the team’s responses become increasingly more personal and thoughtful. Most of these focus on service-related issues – seat or equipment changes, for example – while others are comments about exemplary service. Some of them are just plain fun. She shows a tweet from a regular customer, “Digging the new glasses and silverware, but what happens to all the old branded mugs?” Maynard calls these tweets “surprise and delight” opportunities, and she thrives on them. The SCS team did some background checking with food and beverage and then showed up to meet this frequent flyer at his gate at DFW a few weeks later with a little surprise. His response, “Love flying @AmericanAir who showed up at my gate with retired mugs! Best social media team in airline. Thanks.” Maynard explains to the team that the goodwill that was created by this simple gesture will never get old. “Building these relationships is part of the mission of the social media team. These customers are important to us. They provide us valuable feedback. A lot of these people in this AvGeek community, they really have our back. They become like family,” she explains.

But then along comes a biggie – a hot-button issue that could have potentially blown up in everyone’s faces. The tweet: “Sad that American Airlines won’t help to ship a flag to a 20-year combat veteran’s funeral on a flight his family will be on. Disappointing.”

There is stunned silence in the training room. “This certainly raises more than just a red flag,” says Maynard. She refers to these as “tipping tweets” – those that have the potential to tip over into a media nightmare.

She goes through the social media team’s response. They tweet: “We’d like to look into this. Please follow us and DM us details.” Maynard stresses the importance of trying to get to the bottom of the situation via DM, rather than this playing out in front of 1.5 million followers especially because the situation is sensitive to the family, and it will undoubtedly take more than 140 characters to solve. She reads the entire string of correspondence to the team because she feels it’s important that they get the full context of the situation as well as AA’s response. It turns out the passenger, a firefighter, was flying to his cousin’s funeral, a veteran and bronze star recipient in the US Navy who had spent his career working seven different combat deployments as a medic. His family, who were  flying into DFW from all over the country for his funeral, which incidentally was going to be a full military funeral, had made a wooden American flag with an inscription and his name on it that was intended to be on display during the service. It would then be given to his wife and 1-year-old daughter afterward. AA had told him in Chicago that, because of the dimensions of the flag, it simply couldn’t be checked.

The wooden flag that AA social media helped get shipped from Chicago to a veteran’s funeral in Dallas.
The wooden flag that AA social media helped get shipped from Chicago to a veteran’s funeral in Dallas. (Credits: American Airlines)

At this point, Maynard reiterates to the team that they truly can make a difference and are empowered to do so by using the contacts that they have at their fingertips. “Who do we have in our back pocket that can help us with something like this?” She asks. “Our very own Captain Jim Palmersheim, Senior Manager of veteran’s initiatives. That’s where this needed to go.”

It turns out the social media team immediately shared this with Captain Palmersheim who called the customer within an hour and got the ball rolling. Not only did the flag get shipped free of charge, but AA did a meet-and-greet at the airport and personally handed the flag over to the family within 15 minutes of deplaning. The final tweet from the heartbroken passenger: “American has gone the extra mile to honor the life of a military family member in a big way. Thank you. Thank you.” To which AA social media responded: “It’s our pleasure. Thank you for your trust. We are always here for you.”

A month later, I get the opportunity to test-drive that last sentence during two trips – the first to Las Vegas on pleasure and the second to Costa Rica where I was accompanying 10 students on a study abroad experience. As I arrive at terminal A at DFW ready to fly to LAS, I notice a horrendous, snaking TSA line and tweet “Tip: Avoid DFW Terminal A1-17 security. It’s a mess.” Eight minutes later I get the response: “We appreciate the tip to other customers. @AskTSA will get you through as quickly as possible.”

In Costa Rica, things get more pressing. The volcano, Turrialba, erupts with an ash cloud impacting operations at SJO. The thought of being stranded in a foreign country with anxious parents 2,000 miles away prompts me to tweet: “Turrialba volcano near SJO is erupting. Any plans in place AA in case they close the airport? Will flights divert to Liberia?” Just 15 minutes later I hear from the SCS desk: “We’re keeping close eye on the volcanic ash. You can check updates at: bit/ly/ALERT_AA.” Thankfully, the winds shift and the ash cloud moves away from the airport. We depart on time, and I send a snapshot of the 737s tail in the morning light to @AmericanAir. Twelve minutes later a simple response: “Great tail shot! Enjoy your ride home.”

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should state that American has been my airline of choice for the past 25 years. But something feels different of late. Things seem far more customer-oriented. Maybe it’s because the airline is profitable once again and is in a position to really innovate? I don’t think there is any doubt that the hard product keeps getting better and better. Do bags still miss flights? Of course they do, but there is a remarkable team of problem-solvers and fixers behind the scenes that are just a click or tweet away. Give them a try. You’ll be #gladyoudid!

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By day, Mike Slattery is Director of the Institute for Environmental Studies and Professor at Texas Christian University, USA. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Oxford, England. Originally from South Africa, Mike is an internationally-trained geographer and environmental scientist who has written more than 85 scientific articles and a book on a range of environmental issues, from human impacts on rivers systems to the socio-economic impacts of large-scale wind farms. But he is also an AvGeek with a particular interest in (and extensive collection of) airline menus. Mike’s work takes him all over the globe to landscapes as diverse as the cloud forests of Costa Rica to the game reserves of Southern Africa. At last count, he had flown more than 1.4 million miles, equivalent to being in the air 118.5 days or 5.8 x the distance to the moon. “I’ll never understand how an airliner gets off the ground, but I sure love being in them!” He lives with his family in Fort Worth.