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updated 7/30/2009 3:32:34 PM ET 2009-07-30T19:32:34

It's undeniable that social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube can seem like nothing but a sea of banalities — vacation photos, mundane status updates, birthday wishes, comments on what you had for lunch — but every once in a while, a voice in the wilderness breaks through with a post or tweet heard around the world.

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This very thing happened twice in the travel industry recently when a couple of more or less ordinary (but very well-crafted) complaints about air travel turned into extraordinary Internet sensations — and forced the airlines in question to respond.

Social media is changing the way travelers relate to big companies like airlines and hotel chains; calling the 800 number and sitting on hold for 45 minutes waiting for your complaint to be heard isn't your only option anymore. Even as we are standing in line waiting for bad news, being treated about the same as our luggage, and enduring countless slights and indignities, you and I alike can get the attention of big travel companies, forcing them to listen and respond. With the explosion of social media, we are seeing it happen more and more.

Case study No 1: United Breaks perfectly good guitars

Country singer Dave Carroll of the band Sons of Maxwell has become the poster child for this phenomenon (and for our frustrations as travelers) with his song and video United Breaks Guitars.

When I first started compiling notes for this article, the United Breaks Guitars video was known mostly to musicians, having made the rounds of guitar Web sites and message boards. But as I finish the article this afternoon, the video has been watched over 3.4 million times. Singer Dave Carroll has been on "The Early Show," and news of the video has showed up on CNN and earned full articles in newspapers like USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and the Sydney Morning Herald (yes, that's Sydney, Australia). A search for "United breaks guitars" on Google News produces nearly 500 news articles worldwide, and that's in just the first two search results.

It's been all over Twitter, and was a steady subject even on United's own Twitter feed (albeit in a somewhat weak and muted fashion — nine tweets is hardly the rock to smash the scissors of 3.4 million YouTube views).

Like a lot of stories that go viral, this one struck a nerve by touching on on pent-up frustrations within the larger public; musicians (and guitarists in particular) have been lobbying and boycotting airlines off and on for the past five years. In 2007, the American Federation of Musicians AFL-CIO organized a boycott of Delta Airlines, and won concessions that allowed many musical instruments to qualify as carry-ons. So when Carroll's video hit, there were already a lot of interested pro and hobbyist musicians — but the real audience was much wider than that. Anyone who's ever had their suitcases lost or damaged, been stuck on a grounded plane without food or water, or spent fruitless hours on the phone with an airline (only to hear their complaint denied yet again) could see their own experience reflected in Carroll's story.

Case study No. 2: "World's best passenger complaint letter?"

You don't necessarily need to take your story to YouTube to get heard. A man traveling from Mumbai to Heathrow was apparently appalled at the quality of meals offered en route, and crafted this multimedia complaint letterto Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic.

If you ask me, the fact that the letter was about bad meals (some in-flight custard wasn't great, and we're surprised?) diminishes somewhat the claim to the best traveler complaint letter ever; people have been complaining about bad aircraft meals since JFK airport was called Idlewild. The destruction of a $3,500 guitar, and especially getting the run-around for a year or more: now that is something to complain about. But it's the humor and presentation of the letter that are the lure; like Carroll's video, it is the individual's creativity that got attention, not the nature of the complaint.

Richard Branson, a master of media manipulation, naturally used the episode to his advantage when he made winking jokes about the episode, called the author directly and then offered the guy a job. End of story, with another happy ending for Branson the impish hero. (When these things break out, everyone tries to get on the train — check out the Taylor Guitar Web site—Taylor was the brand of guitar Carroll watched United destroy).

So we have two case studies that went truly viral, to the extent that the folks involved got on the morning TV shows and received calls from Richard Branson. And they got heard in very different ways — one sent an old-fashioned letter using a new-fangled approach; another sent an old-fashioned song using decidedly new media. That's great if your complaint goes big — but what about the little guys?

Many travel companies are using Twitter and other social media to head off problems before they start. Southwest and JetBlue have both shown extremely quick response times to tweets by travelers en route and in trouble. A Southwest passenger recently tweeted about losing a boarding pass and was contacted by the airline immediately; meanwhile, a JetBlue passenger was unable to be seated with his infant child until he tweeted his predicament, which was picked up while he was still in the boarding area.

These didn't go viral, so why did the airlines respond so quickly? Because an immediate response solves the problem and eliminates storylines before they have a chance to go viral. In fact, there's a good chance that the airline's responsiveness will be the piece that makes the news — much like Branson's phone call and subsequent job offer. Southwest and JetBlue (not surprisingly, two fairly progressive airlines) actively participate in the medium so as not to get blindsided by that medium.

The buck stops at YouTube

Carroll's story in particular underscores an issue facing travelers and the travel industry that often goes unaddressed: namely, that of buck-passing. Dave Carroll's prose retelling of his experience calls attention to the fact that buck-passing is conducted at a state-of-the-art level by airlines.

The customer service agents' responses to Carroll are all too familiar — you did not complain in time, you have to report it to someone else, we don't cover that — and Carroll also heard some really good ones that you don't always hear: we don't fly from/have a "presence" in Halifax (despite the fact that United's name was on the side of the plane), you will have to go to the Chicago airport in person to make your complaint ... wow. That Carroll smiles all the way through the video shows an Olympian sense of humor; you'd think he would be smashing things himself.

And it doesn't really stop there. The fact is that United did not hire that baggage handler; the airport did. United merely contracts with the airport baggage handlers to load and unload bags. So really the problem should be addressed to the airport. But this speaks to one of the great problems of airline customer service failures — it's never anyone's fault. The airlines can't control the weather, they can't control mechanical problems, they can't control baggage handlers, they can't accept complaints for codeshare airlines, they can't accept complaints over the phone, they can't accept complaints after the fact, they can't accept complaints because they are too busy, etc.

The disturbing thing is that all of the stories that do reach the media sound exactly like those of so many other travelers who never got any satisfaction whatsoever. If you can write a catchy song, you're on television; otherwise, you're on the phone, and on hold. The trick is not getting yourself heard by the airlines, but by other people — which worries airlines enough that they'll take care of you.

So I should just Tweet my next travel problem?

The simple answer: yes.

There was a time when only the most widely followed bloggers and travel experts could have their voices heard when slighted or abused by travel service providers. If you had a big readership, the airlines gave an ear to your problems; otherwise, you were like Dave Carroll, spending hours upon hours of your life recounting your plight to folks who either didn't care or couldn't do anything about it.

This has all changed, for now. It still helps if you have a fair number of readers on your blog, Twitter feed or YouTube channel, but with an increasing number of service providers now monitoring these outlets in real time, you can get heard not only by the right person, but in time for them to do something about it as well.

I said this has changed "for now" — why the qualifier? I believe that this is Twitter's great moment, and as more and more people flood to the service, and more and more complaints get posted in hopes of immediate gratification, the resources of many travel providers will be taxed to the extent that they will be forced to return to listening only to the loudest and most widely heard voices. At the moment, they're still enthusiastic about helping their relatively small Twitter families — but when this group numbers as many as they have on their planes every day and is swarming with small complaints, I predict some compassion fatigue, as well as resource overload, for the social media staffs at many of these companies.

But if you can write a good country complaint song and sing it well with a smile on your face, and 3.4 million people like it, you probably won't need a Twitter account — you'll need an agent.

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