Airline KLM has said it is going to extraordinary lengths to address the social media demands of passengers.
As senior airline IT staff came together in Brussels for the SITA Air Transport IT Summit to discuss the "CIO agenda", cloud and social media, many of the delegates expressed surprise that KLM employed 23 dedicated social media staff at its hub at Schipol Airport to address the tweets and Facebook mutterings of its customers.
A video was shown to the audience of an exercise which involved the KLM Twitter mini-army going through customer tweets and tracking them down at their departure gates to "reward" them for their feedback.
One passenger, who had tweeted that he was using KLM to fly to a social media conference, was startled when KLM staff handed him a cinema ticket to see The Social Network film.
Another passenger, who had used his iPad to tweet about flying with the airline to Washington for a business trip, was handed a 15 euro iPad apps voucher. A number of other men and women were given gifts matching their tweets.
Whilst this activity seemed to border on stalking its passengers, KLM chief executive officer Peter Hartman was unrepentant. He told delegates: "People will now choose their brand because of social media, which can be a competitive advantage - it's a new way of advertising."
He added, "Someone tweeted at the airport that they had a lack of water, one of our team saw the tweet and went out to find them to hand over a bottle."
The team also played a key role during the volcanic ash crisis when they helped KLM use Twitter and Facebook to help cope with the problems faced by passengers.
Some delegates questioned whether social media was in danger of perhaps covering up the fact that many customer letters and phone calls complaining about bad service at airlines were not being dealt with in a timely manner.
But when small guest houses and hotels are saying they are virtually being closed down as a result of bad reviews on tripadvisor.com, airlines are perhaps understanding they have to make an effort when it comes to online and very public groans.
Hartman's "social media hub" is located next to his office and staffed by a gang of young people. Hartman said they weren't hired as "young and cheap" for their enthusiasm. They were just "young and good at what they do". He said, "They understand it and you have to try new things or you get left behind."
Munir Majid, chairman of Malaysia Airlines, said, "We haven't quite gone to the lengths of KLM yet, but we closely monitor Twitter. If you have bids being made for West Ham United Football Club over Twitter it's something that has to be taken seriously - even though the West Ham board ignored the bid [by global entrepreneur Tony Fernandes]."
Jaan Albrecht, CEO of Star Alliance, chipped in that 30 percent of the customer feedback it receives on the 27 airlines in its alliance comes through social media.
Yesterday SITA and Orange announced they would be building a "community cloud" to service the enterprise IT needs of airlines and their partners.