For airports, the combined impact of disruption and social media can be costly in terms of reputation and financial loss. Disruption and flight delays are two of the biggest challenges the industry faces, although economic estimations of their impact vary. SITA pitches costs to the global airline industry at around $25bn each year, while an Amadeus and T2RL report puts the cost at 8% of airline revenue, or $60bn.

According to CNN, an 11-hour power outage at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International in December 2017 led to 1,180 flight cancellations. Business Insider reported the loss to be between $25m-$50m in revenue.

Power problems and Twitter storms

During the busy holiday period in July 2018, thunderstorms and flight delays affected Heathrow, Luton, Stansted and Gatwick, but it was a power outage during Gatwick’s busiest month of August, when the airport handles 4,927,000 passengers, which sparked one of the biggest air travel disruptions of the year.

“Social media has proven to be highly-effective in the event of a crisis or disruption.”

The outage, caused by damage to a Vodafone fibre optic cable, lasted around eight hours and affected all the flight display systems. As all digital channels were also affected, including the app which provides real-time flight information, manual whiteboards were deployed by staff to communicate flight information to passengers.

A Twitter storm quickly erupted, even though the airport says few passengers actually missed their flights. It was criticised for its handling of the problem, including the whiteboard contingency solution and its failure to post flight data on Twitter.

Ben Nimmo, founder and CTO at Orlo (formerly social media management company SocialSignIn), says that social media is the place where an increasing percentage of travellers will go to complain and seek the latest information. “Twitter is already established as the media channel ‘where news breaks’,” he says, “and in today’s hyper-connected world, social media has proven to be highly-effective in the event of a crisis or disruption.”

The evolution of social media

International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) best practice guide for crisis communications depicts three drivers behind the evolution of social media. They are: connectivity (one-third of the world’s population actively use social media channels); mobility (by 2020, some 80% of adults globally will own a personal smartphone); and streaming video (Facebook Live quickly achieved notoriety after several shocking incidents were streamed on the platform as they occurred).

IATA describes Twitter as the “most widely-used ‘micro-blogging’ service” and notes that it is available in 30 languages, including Chinese, Korean, Arabic. It also reports that a tweet from a “survivor or eyewitness can reach tens of thousands of users around the world in minutes, including mainstream journalists who monitor Twitter”.

Nimmo says that social media isn’t just effective when reacting to news and events, but it also enables organisations to work proactively, acting as an early-warning system and enabling a brand to “work on the front foot”.

“Social media enables a brand to work on the front foot.”

“The latest social media management platforms can ‘listen’ to the millions of daily posts from across the social airwaves and detect spikes in chatter around the locations or names that are being monitored,” he explains. “Staff can then be instantly alerted around an emerging security alert, PR crisis or delay and initiate their action plans, rather than finding out when the general public finds out and being on the back foot straight away.”

Nimmo says that London City Airport’s customer service offering now provides an automated Twitter and Facebook service. “It means passengers can sign up to automated updates via social media, including when check-in has opened and other useful information about their journey, such as updated flight times and gate number.”

SITA’s 2017 Passenger IT Trends Survey showed that 74% of passengers want to use mobile apps to get flight updates.

“What is key, whether on the app or via social media, is that passengers want immediate updates,” confirms Sebastian Fabre, VP of airports at SITA.

Preparing for disruptions

Mark Crosby, an airport security expert and principal consultant at Ross & Baruzzini, believes that using social media is an important tool for reducing confusion among passengers and that its increasing value requires incident commanders to take a new approach.

“The best way for an airport to prepare for disruptions is to have an Airport Operations Centre.”

“While it might take a while to know the best and most accurate information, ICP/EOC (Incident Command Post/Emergency Operations Centre) commanders should use the power of social media to stay ahead of the media speculation that will always occur,” he says. “This is a paradigm change from the traditional approach that ICP/EOC commanders were taught but it is a necessary change in today’s world.”

Ultimately, he says the best way for an airport to prepare for disruptions is to have an Airport Operations Centre, which is staffed full-time, to handle the wide range of contingencies that can arise.

If that isn’t practical, he suggests that “well-exercised emergency response protocols” should be in place that comply with ICS (Incident Command System) guidelines. These should include a “robust public affairs element that includes team members assigned to social media communications”.

AI to revolutionise airport social media

With IATA predicting an increase to 7.8 billion passengers to travel in 2036, doubling the 4 billion that travelled in 2017, how can the industry better manage disruption through social media channels in the future?

“When you combine emotion detection with entity extraction, you have rich contextual understanding.”

“AI is set to revolutionise airport social media,” says Nimmo, who explains that Orlo has been developing solutions that enable organisations to manage high-volume, emergency situations as effectively as possible.

Nimmo explains that Orlo is using AI to draw out key places, names, organisations and mentions, and that understanding sentiment only is no longer enough.

“When you combine emotion detection with entity extraction, you have rich contextual understanding around customer experience and events,” explains Nimmo. “That creates a new level of insight and greatly informs your decision-making going forward, helping get the latest, accurate, concise information out quickly to passengers affected.”

Predicting flight delays in the future

Fabre says that machine learning and AI can play a vital role in understanding what the impact of events, such as major strikes or poor weather, will have on an airport’s passenger flow. It can also predict the impact of an IT power outage.

“This sort of data will help airlines and airports better plan for disruption.”

Using data and machine learning, Fabre explains that SITA Lab, SITA’s research arm, have built a “crystal ball” system that can predict flight delays up to six hours in advance. Working with an Asian airport, SITA’s algorithms showed an accurate prediction of within 15 minutes of the flight arrival for around 80% of flights six hours before touchdown. The team are now working with an airport in North America and extending predictions to 24 hours before gate arrival.

“This sort of data will help airlines and airports better plan for disruption,” says Fabre. “For example, if you know in advance that a passenger on a delayed flight is going to miss his connection, you can rebook their flight and meet them at the gate with their new flight details, avoiding an unpleasant experience for the passenger.”