In most cases, people talking about a brand on Facebook is a good thing. But when it comes to airlines, often the brunt of consumers' frustrations when it comes to anything from weather to global events, chatter on social media is more often related to consumer relations nightmares.
This month, one thing is on just about any traveler's mind: Coronavirus. Cruise ships have been turned away from ports, travel to and from certain countries is being — or has been — blocked, conferences are being canceled all over the globe, and even the Tokyo Summer Olympics' viability has been called into question.
But, so far, airlines appear to be navigating the crisis just fine. Most have proactively issued change-fee waivers and have been proactive with flexible rule changes as a way to both drum up business but also to — in the case here — avoid taking on the ire of angry travelers. That's because, according to "Talking About" counts via Facebook, not a single airline is seeing increased activity, bucking historical patterns.
Here's what we're seeing.
On March 1, American Airlines ($AAL) announced it would waive change fees for customers purchasing travel between March 1 and March 16, including all routes and fare classes. This means any changes made to travel at least 14 days before travel will not incur fees. In short, American is not only helping travelers out in case their destination becomes a health risk, but also itself as it avoids negative chatter on Facebook.
So far, American's "Talking About" count on Facebook isn't seeing any unusual activity. But you'll notice that in December 2018, American Airlines' "Talking About" shot to nearly 150,000 in December 2018 after the company reportedly abandoned a passenger in a wheelchair overnight at an airport after a flight was canceled.
Delta's "Talking About" activity remains quiet, indicating that, at least so far, travelers haven't taken to Facebook to complain about their experiences. Why is that significant? If you look at Delta's largest spike in "Talking About" in July 2016, you may recall that happened after the airline suffered a massive power outage that grounded thousands of passengers around the world. It wasn't a good day for the airline.
United Airlines ($UAL) was the last of the big three to jump on the fee-waiver bandwagon, but it did so with one of the more generous policies. United is waiving change fees for all tickets booked between March 3 and March 31, including all destinations, fare types, and travel dates.
United Airlines' "Talking About" count on Facebook also remains quiet, but, like Delta and American, this wasn't always the case. in April 2017, the airline's Facebook mentions shot to more than 400,000 on a single day after a viral video showed a passenger — a doctor, no less — being dragged off a United Flight.
Things are quiet for Southwest, Jetblue, and Alaska airlines as well which, in the case of how they're handling the coronavirus outbreak and all it means for travel, is a good thing. At least, so far.
While the travel waivers are a good first measure from airlines to appease customers, some experts think the airline industry has yet to really feel the effects of coronavirus.
"U.S. airlines are clearly concerned with reassuring nervous or uneasy travelers who might otherwise be dissuaded from booking travel altogether," Melanie Lieberman, Travel Editor of The Points Guy told us.
"If coronavirus persists, it’s likely the waivers will be extended and additional flights will be canceled. Unfortunately, airlines have been stubborn about making changes to tickets issued before the outbreak began to spread, and we’ve seen a reluctance from the European market to allow travelers more flexibility."
Even if airlines effectively avoid social media backlash as we're seeing here in this data, Lieberman points out that the economic impact for the airline industry may be yet to come, and it may hurt smaller, regional carriers.
"There’s no doubt there could be serious financial implications for the airlines," she added in a written statement to Thinknum Media. "Industry analysts suspect coronavirus may be a harbinger that the recent era of airline expansion could be at an end. In North America, airlines may have some ability to limit exposure to China, though as the virus spreads, the story becomes much more global. Additionally, regional carriers in China and elsewhere in Asia may not be able to absorb the losses from that hard-hit region. Coronavirus-related cancellations and route suspensions could tip already struggling airlines over the edge into insolvency."
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online - jobs, social and web traffic, product sales and app ratings - and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.
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