As the new year dawned, so too did the first airline Twitter controversy of 2014.
It all began on 30 December when writer Chris Turner attempted to apply a flight voucher he’d received from Air Canada towards the purchase of a ticket for his wife. Air Canada’s customer service agents informed Turner that he could not do so because the voucher was in his name. Though vouchers could be used towards the purchase of a ticket for family members, the family member had to have the same last name as the passenger to whom the voucher was issued. This set off a wave of protests from members of the Twitter community who perceived this practice as a leap backwards in policies towards married couples and the rights of women.
Air Canada responded to the backlash, by tweeting that its policy was designed to prevent fraud. But by 2 January, the carrier had made good with Turner and announced it would revise its voucher policy.
This begged the question – was Air Canada’s original voucher policy so unusual in the airline industry? Was it an outdated attitude towards marriage and the rights of women, or merely standard protocol to protect the consumer as Air Canada had indicated?
American Airlines is one of the few carriers that clearly state their voucher policy online. Vouchers issued by American are non-transferrable, but the voucher owner may present and use the voucher toward the purchase of a ticket for anyone without restriction. American specifies that it is not responsible for lost or stolen vouchers, which resolves the question of fraud.
In Spain, taking your spouse’s name is not the norm (in fact it’s considered unusual). I called Iberia to ask how it deals with vouchers in a country where spouses generally have different last names. The airline’s response was unequivocal – vouchers issued to passengers are not transferrable. The airline explained that even if a “Ms. Garcia” tried to purchase a ticket for “Mr. Garcia”, using a travel voucher issued to her, she could not. For Iberia, this is also a fraud-prevention measure, and helps the carrier fend against the illicit use of lost or stolen vouchers by third parties.
Vouchers, Iberia explained, are issued by the airline as compensation for a passenger’s inconvenience, either from flight delays, overbooked flights, or certain other customer-service complaints. They are intended to benefit the passenger and the passenger only. Spain may be a progressive nation in terms of marital policy, a country where women keep their family name by default and gay marriage has been legal since 2005, but this has no relation to airline vouchers as far as Iberia is concerned. It’s not a matter of social policy, just good business practice.
Scandinavians are also known for their progressive policies on the rights of women and the definition of family. I reached out to SAS to ask how the airline applies credit to family members. SAS explained that it has two separate tiers of vouchers, and the applicable policy would depend on what type of voucher the passenger was trying to use. Special vouchers issued to passengers for inconveniences such as over-bookings and flight delays, or similar customer-service issues, are non-transferrable. Like Iberia, SAS limits the use of such vouchers to the individual passenger named on the form. Gift vouchers are available for customers to purchase, can be applied to any passenger, and are fully transferrable. For SAS this also is a matter of fraud-prevention, not social policy.
Are these airlines concerned about the social media controversy Air Canada experienced over the New Year? Did they feel adequately equipped to handle social media backlash on this level? Iberia and SAS said they are satisfied with their social media team’s handling of customer needs. At both airlines, social media representatives answer to the Public Relations and Media departments. Representatives come with previous social media expertise and receive ongoing social media training. Any customer questions about services and airline policies are researched with the corresponding operations department and replies are based on fact-checking with the department responsible. All representatives are instructed to reflect and maintain a customer-care perspective.
If Iberia experienced an issue such as Air Canada’s, it said, a meeting with airline management would immediately be called, and the airline would work to quickly resolve whether a policy change was required. Iberia said it likely wouldn’t change a policy based only on social media commentary, without sound justification from a corporate perspective, but it would depend on the particular situation. The airline emphasized that it encourages a homogenous communication from all departments, so that customers receive a consistent message no matter who they speak to at the airline, either online, by phone, or in person.
SAS pointed out that it has already dealt with a social media storm of its own during the Icelandic Ash-Cloud event of 2010. The airline pointed out that SAS had successfully used its full social media platform to ensure customers were regularly updated, and that their needs and concerns were addressed. They put great importance on social media as a platform for customer communications, and are confident that their focus on training and customer service translates into effective social media management.
For its part, Air Canada stressed that social media commentary alone does not shape its decision-making. “Air Canada has been very active on social media such as Twitter and Facebook for several years now, and we’re pleased with their growth as channels to communicate and interact with our customers directly. While social media may provide a gauge of interest on a particular topic, for feedback to shape customer policies we rely primarily on our front line employees and our customers’ emails sent to our Customer Relations team. These emails are generated by our website and provide structured forms that enable us to gather details and track relevant facts to make informed decisions when we revise our policies, which we do on a regular basis. In the case of flight credit vouchers for example, they were already in the process of being replaced by electronic gift cards, introduced following suggestions from our own employees, as well as by promotional codes which can be efficiently managed online and are fully transferrable,” says the carrier.
It adds, “The social media team at Air Canada is cross-functional. It’s composed of a group of dedicated customer service agents trained to assist customers with their travel plans, while supporting the airline’s digital marketing and corporate communications activities.”
Recently, an article by social media observers – perhaps half jokingly – suggested that airlines should leave Twitter altogether. The piece highlighted various examples of open hostility demonstrated towards major carriers on Twitter. Airlines have absolutely no intention of leaving Twitter, or any other social media platform. They love social media, even if social media doesn’t always love them back.