How the top U.S. airlines use Facebook

airplaneWe all know that social media, and Facebook in particular, are increasingly important marketing channels. The travel industry, which I take a close interest in, has been one of the early adopters for social media marketing. Travel tech website Tnooz recently had a story about how the top 10 airlines worldwide used Facebook.

The Tnooz list was dominated by European and Asian airlines since it was based on IATA data on the scheduled international passengers in 2009 and U.S. airlines derive the bulk of their traffic from domestic flights. (In fact, American Airlines was the only U.S. entry on the list). This got me wondering about the massive U.S. market, so I did some research of my own.

My list is of the top 10 U.S. airlines, based on 2009 data from the Air Transport Association. They ranked the airlines by the industry-standard measure of “available seat mile” or ASMs – one seat transported one mile. (For example, an aircraft with 100 passenger seats, flown a distance of 100 miles, produces 10,000 ASMs).

There were certainly some interesting results. Delta Air, the biggest airline when including Northwest, is also the only one with ticketing functionality built into its Facebook page. (Some others would let you search on the page but the actual results would open in a new window on the corporate website).

Size of the airline doesn’t always translate into ‘likes’ – Southwest was ranked fourth in terms of ASMs but it was the biggest airline on Facebook by far, with over 900,000 ‘likes’ – 22 times more fans than Delta. The second biggest was JetBlue with just over 300,00 ‘likes’, even though the airline was only ranked seventh over all. (Facebook figures were correct at the time of publication).

Please let us know in the comments about your experiences with airlines on Facebook. Which airlines are getting it right? How important should Facebook be in airlines’ overall marketing strategy?

delta1. Delta Air + Northwest

ASMs: 196.5 million

Facebook likes: 40,869

Seemingly alone among all major U.S. airlines, Delta Airlines has integrated ticketing functions into its Facebook page. You can book on Delta flights without leaving the Facebook page, under the Book A Trip tab. The Wall tab defaults to ‘Just Delta; and is currently being used to promote the launch of the Delta iPhone app and destinations such as Hong Kong. Delta’s Info tab advises that it cannot deal with all complaints on Facebook and feedback requiring a response should be sent via the website, by tweeting @DeltaAssist or sending a letter. I couldn’t find a separate company-run page for Northwest.

aacom2. American Airlines

ASMs: 151.7 million

Facebook likes: 71,465

American Airlines’ Facebook page defaults to the Wall, with the ‘Just AA’ filter. It is used to convey information about the frequent flyer program and conduct promotions such as a ticket giveaway for the upcoming John Legend & the Roots concert in New York City. Separate tabs promote AA’s iPhone app, in-flight wifi service and Twitter and YouTube accounts. AA’s Info tab advises that it does not deal with complaints on Facebook and advises feedback to be sent via the website.

unitedcom3. United Airlines

ASMs: 122.5 million ASMs (to increase after merger with Continental)

Facebook likes: 149,526

The United Airlines Facebook page has not been around long, making its following of nearly 150,000 especially impressive. One of the main factors is likely to be the round-trip ticket giveaway sweepstakes for people who ‘like’ the page, which started on July 27 to celebrate the launch of the page. Currently the page defaults to a ‘Win A Flight’ tab with details of the promotion, which runs until September 22. The Wall has United Airlines + Others set as the default filter, and has a lot of travelers exchanging information and asking questions. The page’s Info tab says the airline welcomes honest feedback, though it reserves the right to correct factual errors. In the left-hand sidebar, visitors are told that if they need a response they should contact customer relations via the website or by mail.

southwest4. Southwest Airlines

ASMs: 98.0 million

Facebook likes: 913,816
Southwest Airlines has been using social media for a while and it shows – the airline is well on its way to reaching a million ‘likes’ on its Facebook page. Currently the page opens at a tab labeled More LUV, with an Orlando vacation package giveaway and streams pulled in from Twitter and YouTube. The Wall defaults to Southwest + Others and shows active engagement from fans; currently there is quite a bit of discussion about Hurricane Earl plus people asking Southwest to start serving their city. Playing off its selling point of no fees for checked bags, Southwest also has a ‘Bags Fly Free’ tab. This provides another forum for people to post short messages, which they can post on their own Facebook profiles via a tick box, and also has fun quizzes about what airlines might charge for next, with possible answers such as toilet paper or seat belts. A sidebar on the left advises customers are to direct complaints or specific issues to the customer service team.

continental5. Continental Airlines

ASMs: 94.3 million (to increase after merger with United)

Facebook likes: 28,187
I’m not sure who got there first but Continental Airlines has its Facebook page at facebook.com/continentalairlines, while facebook.com/continental leads to a German company that makes tires, brake systems and other automotive parts. The page opens to a Travel Advice tab where you can ask advice, give advice or read advice, with recent posts including questions about traveling on a soon-to-expire passport. The Wall defaults to the Just Continental Airlines filter and recent updates include information about rerouting for Hurricane Earl and announcements about competition winners. The ‘More…’ tab includes a Twitter stream and flight info search, with results opening in a new page on Continental.com. A notice in the left-hand sidebar advises customers to direct complaints to the customer service team via the website or mail, if they require a response.

usairways16. US Airways

ASMs: 70.7 million

Facebook likes: 7,420
The US Airways page has a single post dated August 19, which says: “We plan to build out this Facebook page more in the near future. In the meantime, we encourage you to follow us on Twitter where you can get our latest news and updates.” I found the page only because they had the simple URL facebook.com/USAirways; a search for US Airways turned up mostly community pages with Wikipedia content.

jetblue7. JetBlue Airways

ASMs: 32.6 million

Facebook likes: 316,033
Unusually, the JetBlue Facebook page defaults to the Info tab, which includes selling points such as extra leg room and the availability of free DIRECTTV. Like its close competitor Southwest, the airline is very active on social media and this has resulted in an impressive 316,033 ‘likes’ on its page – the second highest of any major U.S. airline. The Wall defaults to Just JetBlue Airways, with posts updating passengers on Hurricane Earl and a feed from the JetBlue blog Blue Tales. There’s a special “AYCJ” tab promoting the ‘All You Can Jet’ pass, but it seems to be sold out. A sidebar on the left advises customers to direct specific questions via the website or 1-800 phone number.

airtran8. AirTran Airways

ASMs: 23.3 million

Facebook likes: 5,715
A search for Airtran on Facebook turns up mostly community pages with Wikipedia content. However, I eventually found the page at facebook.com/airtranairways. It defaults to the Wall tab, with the Just Airtrain Airways filter switched on, where there is active discussion going on about Hurricane Earl. Like most airlines, customers are advised that the airline will not deal with specific complaints or itinerary issues on the Facebook page. There are also tabs for the airline’s YouTube channel and a Sweepstakes tab, currently giving away the chance to watch the Atlanta Falcons from a pair of AirTran Airways Business Class seats at the next home game, though with 117 days left to run on the promotion it won’t be for a while. A sidebar on the left advises customers to direct urgent queries to the reservations center on a 1-800 number.

alaska9. Alaska Airlines

ASMs: 23.1 million

Facebook likes: 17,405

The Alaska Airlines Facebook page has a simple URL and is also the top result on Facebook when searching for “Alaska”. The page defaults to the Wall tab, set to the Just Alaska Airlines filter, and includes updates on the airline’s sponsorship of soccer team the Portland timbers and news about its fall fares sale. The rest of the tabs are pretty standard, though quite a lot of links seem to be housed in the Boxes tab, which suggests the airline might be about to rethink its Facebook page layout in light of Facebook’s decision to stop supporting boxes.

skywest_logo10. Skywest Airlines

ASMs: 15.0 million

Facebook likes: N/A

No one has the pages facebook.com/skywest or facebook.com/skywestairlines and I was unable to locate a company page by search, only community pages.

Photo credits: Main picture from Colleen Lane on Flickr, licensed for commercial use under Creative Commons. Airline thumbnails from the Facebook page profile pictures, with the exception of Skywest.

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