Airports Get Social on Facebook and Twitter

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

The average A380 is said to contain 450 smartphones, 213 laptops and 207 tablets. And the passengers carrying them continually leave imprints on social media sites around the world.

With passengers Tweeting, blogging and Instagramming so much, few airports - large or small - can afford to be without a social media presence these days.

Do you know what passengers are posting about your airport? Are you leveraging Twitter or Facebook to reach out to them?

"With social media, you can go directly to your audience," says Reese McCranie, director of

Project: Social Media Initiatives
Airports Profiled: Akron-Canton; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int'l; San Diego Int'l
Sample Programs: Facebook profiles; Twitter feeds (social & emergency-only); airport blogs
Industry Firsts: Akron-Canton Airport was the first to established a blog (2005) & use Facebook (2007)
Key Advantages: Fast, low-cost way to receive & respond to customer feedback; allows airports to "humanize" their organizations; effective forum to provide accurate
info during emergency situations
Airport/Airline Social Media Specialist:  SimpliFlying

communications at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). McCranie came to the airport from the mayor's office just last year and has since implemented an aggressive, successful social media program at ATL. "Part of this is constantly reminding people that an airport is more than just a transportation hub," he says. "We have other things here that are worth talking about."

Kristie Van Auken, senior vice president and chief marketing/communications officer at Akron-Canton Airport (CAK), agrees. She considers it essential that people think of airports as more than just brick and mortar and relate to "their airport" on a more personal level. Van Auken categorizes social media as a "smart business tool" that allows airports to be open and transparent, similar to the way family members communicate with one another. "Social media tools give the airport genuine customer insights that we simply can't get any other way," she explains. "We are able to build relationships by getting to know what our customers truly care about."

In 2005, CAK was the first airport to have a blog and in 2007, the first to be on Facebook. These days, the airport is well known throughout the industry as a social media standout. Two young staffers originally pitched the idea to Van Auken. "They offered a very compelling argument for customer engagement," she recalls.

Be Social

CAK's social media strategy actually helps guide business decisions, notes Van Auken."There are several airport choices near us," she explains. "We work hard to differentiate CAK by being in closer relationships with our customers and offering a relaxing experience when they fly with us. It defines who we are."

An airport's strategy needs to be thoughtfully constructed, but it shouldn't sacrifice the innate spontaneity of social media, she adds. Messages must be consistent with an airport's values and brand, and truly reflect its relationship with the surrounding community, Van Auken elaborates.

When identifying the target audience for social media messages, airports shouldn't overlook their stakeholders, advises McCranie. Because ATL sits on four municipalities, it has an unusually large group to keep informed and engaged. "We have to keep them invested, so they add to our strategy," he explains.

In January 2008, San Diego International Airport (SAN) became the first U.S. airport to have an employee blog - an idea inspired by Steve Shultz, deputy director of public and customer relations for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority. Shultz was looking for a way to reach staff and visitors alike, and wanted to create a "human face" for the large organization. The blog began as a grass-roots effort, with rank-and-file employees from each department providing content - a strategic move that resonates with employees as well the public, he reflects. These days, the blog is still active and at the forefront of the airport's social media program.

SAN also maintains two unique Twitter feeds: one reserved strictly for airport emergencies and another that is purely social in nature.

It's important for an airport's social media to mirror its other communication tools, such as press releases, the annual report and website, notes Shultz. "Unifying the online experience is where we're trying to go at this point," adds Jon Graves, the authority's webmaster and creative director. "We're branding each one of our tools so that every bit of the online experience feels the same to our customers."

ATL's McCranie agrees, noting that consistency in message and narrative across all platforms is extremely important. Despite its more casual nature, social media messages still represent the airport, he emphasizes.

Quality vs. Quantity

To many organizations, social media is a numbers game. It's all about the quantity of fans, followers, re-Tweets, posts and video views. While audience market share is undisputedly important, social media specialists caution newbies that content itself is equally important. It's also what will retain and grow an airport's performance numbers in the long run.

David McMullen, vice president of airports at SimpliFlying, encourages airports to remember that a large following does not automatically mean they are doing something right. "A strong brand name can often account for large followings," advises McMullen. "(Conversely), Facebook is a place where smaller airports can punch above their weight and gain loyal followers and customers."

SimpliFlying is a consulting firm that specializes in helping both airlines and airports engage "connected travelers." Its airport clients include Toronto Pearson International, Halifax International and Kuala Lumpur International.

McMullen, who provided the earlier statistics about just how connected A380 passengers are, cautions airports that travelers expect value for the time and effort they spend engaging an organization via social media. 

According to him, Facebook is currently a stronger medium than Twitter. But he predicts that Twitter and video will boom for airports in the coming months and years.

Maintaining Momentum

Once an airport's strategy is set and the quality of its social media messaging is established, it's up to the staff to keep the messages going. The growth of SAN's social media efforts has been strictly organic. Low to no cost was originally the big selling point for senior management, recalls Shultz. "That continues to be a big advantage," he adds.

The airport, however, recently incurred social media expenses, when it purchased Facebook ads to help boost ticket sales for a large art symposium it was hosting. The buy proved effective: Attendance doubled.

Thella F. Bowens, president and CEO of the San Diego Airport Authority, recently spoke about social media at a public forum. Using blogs and Facebook can help airports "keep a finger on the pulse of a very broad and diverse stakeholder base in a way other tools do not allow," she noted. When there is a maintenance problem in an airport restroom, for instance, it will typically be on Twitter before it reaches the airport via older communication channels such as onsite employees or comment cards.

Shultz sees such criticisms or complaints as opportunities to educate and promote the airport's message. By using social media, SAN can respond promptly about what is being done to address the problem or simply change the way the issue is viewed, he explains. 

The CAK team places a similarly high value on the speed and power of social media. "It's a very, very good tool for real, true customer engagement and feedback," emphasizes Van Auken.

CAK also joins the flow by following media trends such as the 2012 Sweet Brown video and adapting them to an airport theme. A good picture on Throwback Thursday or images of a volunteer who flies veterans and their families for no charge can draw a lot of positive attention to the airport's Facebook page, notes Van Auken."That takes people to a very good place," she explains. "When they are searching for airfare, they may subconsciously be thinking about how we promote these things, how important they are."

Ready for Takeoff?

As a consultant, McMullen has seen many airports try to "jump on the social media bandwagon," without fully committing to the endeavor. A strategic plan is essential right from the start, he notes.

Shultz advises airports to start small, on a platform they feel comfortable with and can easily manage. "A mistake newcomers make is being impressed by several different tools and simultaneously launching them at one time," he relates. Learning new platforms is a challenge - even for social media veterans like SAN, he reflects.

On the other hand, McMullen cautions against half-hearted dabbling, as it can render a medium ineffective. When it comes to social media, there is currently a wide range of proficiency and experience levels in the airport industry, he observes. Regardless of where facilities fall on that spectrum, he encourages all airports to establish specific objectives for their social media programs, develop relevant key performance indicators, and then track their results and adjust their strategies as needed.

In 2014, the quality of followers will be far more important than the quantity, he warns: "Airport marketers will strive for creative ways to deliver more relevant engagement with passengers, as travelers continue to limit their friends on Facebook, removing irrelevant content from their newsfeeds and clicking 'unfollow' on airports that aren't adding any value to their life." 


Planning for the Worst

Beyond marketing and routine customer interface, social media can also play a vital emergency management role. "In time of crisis, people are going to Tweet and post Facebook images, videos or comments before you even have a chance to get the facts out," says Reese McCranie, director of communications at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). "Whoever is doing your social media needs to be part of the discussion when operational decisions are being made and responses being given."

During a recent tabletop exercise, ATL personnel developed the idea to create a unique Twitter hashtag to help manage emergency communications. "That way, everyone is following the same conversation," explains McCranie. "Twitter is like the Wild West sometimes; but if enough people follow a specific hashtag, they will know to go there for the latest information." This tactic also allows the airport to have a solid voice in the conversation, which provides opportunities to dispel rumors and allay misguided fears.

Although they weren't all-out weather emergencies, two snow and ice storms inspired ATL to take its social media efforts to a whole new level this winter. When weather threatened to disrupt operations, McCranie took a crew out onto the airfield to shoot pictures and video of planes being de-iced and runways being plowed. They even Tweeted from the control tower.

"I really wanted to show a behind-the-scenes look at what we were doing to prepare," he explains, noting that the goal was to show airport activities that people don't usually get to see." That's what grows your numbers, your retweets, shares on Facebook. All of that is very important."

The Tweets and posts also confirmed to passengers that the situation was under control and the airport was open for business, he adds. By using a quality message to deliver unique information, ATL used social media to provide something people were interested in seeing - and forwarding on to their family and friends.



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