Unpacking the Airline Industry With Social Media Intelligence
Storyful examined emerging trends within air travel, consumer perception of various brand initiatives, and social indications of confidence in the industry to provide insight into the consumer landscape and allow airline brands to navigate rising challenges facing the rapidly evolving air travel market.
By tracking conversations from industry advocates and key voices in regulation and policy, as well as everyday consumers' reactions to airline messaging and key news events, Storyful was able to uncover the key motivations and beliefs currently driving purchase and perception for the airlines industry in the UK.
“Flight-shaming" emerges as awareness of carbon emissions grows. Sustainability messaging viewed as inadequate.
With the number of budget flights on the rise, consumers are quick to voice their ongoing pain points.
The demise of the Thomas Cook Group created opportunities and challenges for airlines such as British Airways.
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The State of the Airline Industry
The airline industry is contending with growing customer demand amid the risk of economic downturn, changing consumer attitudes towards travel fuelled by startups and influencer culture, and ongoing geopolitical events that may irrevocably harm the industry.
Passenger air travel continues to be a growth market, with KMPG forecasting growth above the long-term ten-year average of 5.5%. However, with a looming economic slowdown on the horizon, environmental concerns, and security fears, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is predicting a cooldown in passenger demand.
As 2019 has shown, social media plays an increasingly important role in brand reputation for airlines industry—not only in terms of sourcing and sharing recommendations, but for its ability to rapidly inflame crises or propel an airline to viral status.
The environmental impact of the airline industry is not just a fringe issue. Dogged activism from groups like Extinction Rebellion, as well as rising climate activism among young people, means that the environmental cost of air travel is becoming a consideration for everyday consumer. As such, strategic efforts and messaging relating to sustainability should be a key focus for any airline through 2019 and onward.
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The Question of Sustainability Lingers
Budget airlines face a range of subtle issues degrading consumer trust that need to be addressed. These include public uncertainty around transparency in pricing, a growing frustration with poor customer service, and allegations of racial profiling.
Declining Consumer Trust in Budget Airlines
Lessons Taken From the Collapse of Thomas Cook
Global events such as the tragic 737 Max crashes have impacted consumer trust in the industry. However, there are also subtle, underlying signs of shaken consumer confidence in the industry at large. The collapse of the Thomas Cook Group after over 175 years in the travel industry has put the risks facing the industry into stark contrast, and shows how the news cycle provides occasions for airline brands to falter—or flourish.
“Climate Change concerns and the example set by inspirational campaigners like Greta Thunberg have prompted tens of thousands of Swedes to ditch the plane and take the train. I hope we see a similar shift in social norms in the UK soon.”- @scribblestreet
Flight-shaming—the trend towards making air travel socially unacceptable due to its carbon cost—is gaining ground among consumers, fuelled by activists organizations pushing slow travel.
of consumer conversation on Twitter featured flight-shaming terminology, associating flying with keywords such as ‘guilt’, ‘shame’, or ‘embarrassed’.
Activist groups on Twitter led the call for fewer flights
European activist and advocacy organisations are encouraging travellers to reduce the number of flights they take in a year. Some are even calling for consumers to give up flying altogether. For example, FlightFree2020 aims to record a total of 100,000 flight-free pledges in 2020. On the other hand, the Aviation Environment Federation, a UK NGO, focuses on industry policy like banning airline miles.
Flight-shaming advocates emphasize slower travel
A key message from activists is that ‘no flying’ does not mean ‘no travelling’, with some emphasizing the benefits of slower journeys. This messaging is now infiltrating brands, with KLM encouraging travellers to “fly responsibly” and choose trains over planes.
Carbon calculators also appeared frequently in conversation around the full impact of air travel.
‘You would have to recycle everything in your household comprehensively for almost eight years to equal the greenhouse gas emissions saved by skipping just one round-trip flight from London to New York.’ - Extinction Rebellion
Airlines are promoting sustainability initiatives on flights, which drive praise online. However, these small-scale initiatives also spark broader sustainability criticism and concerns about carbon emissions from consumers.
‘Can't help but laugh at the irony of applauding zero-waste trays.. to be used while incinerating thousands of gallons of carbon-based fuel to propel you through the air. We are past the point where edible flight meal trays make any difference…’ - Facebook User
click the arrow for consumer reaction
Plastic is a key issue, but did not answer emissions criticism
Consumers appreciated when airlines attempted to fly plastic-free. However, even this positive response was tempered by criticism of overall carbon emissions.
Single-use plastic received criticism online, and airlines were targeted for high volumes of plastic wasted on flights. Excess packaging for plane food and failure to fill reusable water bottles also prompted consumer disapproval.
“The meal tray is made from coffee grounds, while the desert lid is made from an edible wafer”.
Dear @British_Airways and @crukafe: is it really necessary to have this much packaging for ONE cup of coffee?
Mapping the Backlash
In the conversation around sustainability, activist groups drove backlash towards Ryanair’s report on fuelling emissions, while consumers organically pushed back on British Airways for plastic packaging.
The above visualisation maps 1.3k Twitter posts related to airlines and sustainability. Individual nodes (dots) represent accounts, while the lines between indicate connections—original posts, comments, replies, etc.—on the platform.
2. Budget Airlines
Though customer experience remained the number one pain point for budget airlines, consumers also addressed emerging pain points such as a lack of transparency and racial profiling.
In an era of brand transparency, being taken advantage of by budget airlines is a growing concern for consumers. Hidden fees (8% of all complaints) were closely associated with seat allocation (2%) and leg room (5.6%) as consumers expressed dissatisfaction with airlines sharing fees to sit beside loved ones, or to sit in a seat with suitable leg room. This fed into the growing pain point that consumers felt tricked; that the initial ticket price did not reflect the cost of the final purchase.
The below visualisation created by Storyful’s proprietary network mapping tool, Cosmos, maps posts and responses around sustainability and the airlines industry on Twitter. Ryanair and British Airways stand out as key brand accounts targeted for backlash, though for very different reasons:
What You See Is What You Get?
The Quality of Interaction is Still Vital.
In an era of brand transparency, being taken advantage of by budget airlines is a growing concern for consumers.
Our analysis (right) revealed that hidden fees (8% of all complaints) were closely associated with seat allocation (2%) and leg room (5.6%) as consumers expressed dissatisfaction with airlines sharing fees to sit beside loved ones, or to sit in a seat with suitable leg room. This fed into the growing pain point that consumers felt tricked; that the initial ticket price did not reflect the cost of the final purchase.
3. Thomas Cook Collapse
Lessons for the Airline Industry
This visualisation shows 5k complaints from reddit and Twitter related to budget airlines including Ryanair, Easy Jet, Jet 2, Wizz Air. Clusters in this graph represent the most discussed topics. Clusters positioned near each other represent similarities in language and can indicate connections to other topics.
“@British_Airways you should be ashamed of yourself with how you have treated the Thomas Cook crew after everything they have been through shame on you British Airways you’ve officially got one less customer.” - @channyyyxo
The fallout from the collapse of the Thomas Cook Group shows how the news cycle provides occasions for airline brands to falter—or flourish.
Several airlines faced backlash for “price-jacking” as Thomas Cook passengers scrambled to travel home. Explanations of price surges due to flight availability and demand were not communicated effectively to the general public, who heaped outrage on flights for “cashing in.”
British Airways, Jet2, Ryanair criticized for price hikes
Virgin Atlantic praised for efforts to fly Thomas Cook crew and customers
Virgin Atlantic’s efforts to fly stranded Thomas Cook staff saw positive reaction on social media, as users shared sharing photos of cabin crew being looked after. Virgin’s Facebook post announcing travel arrangements for overseas Thomas Cook customers received 1.3k “Loves” reactions.
Reactions to Virgin’s announcement of travel arrangements for overseas customers.
Confidence in the package holiday industry waned as the collapse of the Thomas Cook Group prompted reflection on the market’s place in the industry at large. The incident also sparked discussion around whether the package holiday industry itself was outdated and in need of modernisation.
“Jet2 branded ‘despicable’ after ‘trebling prices’ following Thomas Cook collapse” -@metrouk
Timeline of Reactions
2. Budget Airlines
Specific brand efforts soon became the focus point. Virgin Atlantic emerged as the “airline of the people” with individuals praising its role in rescuing stranded staff.
Subsequent media coverage focused on Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary’s comments about the demise of package holidays and other budget airlines.
A price-jacking narrative rapidly took hold around the airline industry. Stranded passengers shared stories of price hikes that prompted outrage on social.
The Impact of Thomas Cook Collapse on Consumer Confidence
When it comes to travel-related purchase decisions, consumers open up on social media more earnestly than ever before. Are airlines tapping into every corner of the web to understand and react to consumer perceptions, attitudes and motivations around travel?
“He [Michael O’ Leary] is 100% right Resort holidays are so dead- and they should be. Allow locally owned places to shine. Feed the local economy not the greedy chains… Package holidays should have died many years ago along with brick & mortar travel agencies.”
- Facebook User
“It’s far more complicated than just Brexit. Other travel companies are still doing well in the face of difficult trading conditions. A generation of austerity policies, increased competition, disruptors like AirBNB, and internet providers plus a company that has been poorly managed for years are the reasons.”
- Facebook User
“Thomas Cook nearly collapsed 8 years ago. It was only a matter of time. Needed re-branding & modernising. Too old fashioned. Marks & Spencer’s will go the same way." - Facebook User