Attention Flyertalkers. You know who you are. I have news for you. United Airlines is reading your posts. Just about every one of them.
I spoke recently with Scott O’Leary, United’s managing director of customer solutions, about the carrier’s relationship with Flyertalk.com., whose parent company, Internet Brands, is based in El Segundo, Calif. For those unfamiliar, Flyertalk is perhaps the top website for frequent fliers obsessed with airlines. Its users take pleasure in discussing the most minute details of each airline’s service and branding.
Just about every major carrier in the world has its own Flyertalk section, but United is among the most popular, according to Internet Brands officials. This week, among many topics, loyalists have been discussing whether United has stopped offering the full can of soda in economy class. They’ve also been mourning the loss of the carrier’s Seattle to Tokyo nonstop flight. That flight is moving to Houston.
“Flyertalk in and of itself is probably one of the richest sources of user generated feedback about our business on the internet,” O’Leary told me. “We can, through a very healthy monitoring of Flyertalk, have a very good sense of what drives passion in our customers.”
And yes, O’Leary and his colleagues read nearly everything.
“My team actually takes a healthy portion of their day both during normal business hours and outside of normal business hours reading,” he said. “That is the best way to keep on top of it.”
United monitors Flyertalk.com for three main reasons, O’Leary said.
- It’s an early warning-system. If there’s a problem in United’s operation, Flyertalk’s users tend to spot it immediately. “In our business — as complicated as it is — I can’t imagine a week that has gone by that we haven’t made some change somewhere at this airline that was a result of what we found on Flyertalk,” O’Leary said. Flyertalk members occasionally point out a United policy that is not written as clearly as it should be. Those can be made clearer. “Routine changes are content changes on our website,” he said.
- It functions like an unofficial advertisement for United. Flyertalk’s influence goes beyond its members. The site is so powerful that it often shows up high on Google searches. You may have never heard of Flyertalk but you might Google “United Airlines” and “business class” and discover a Flyertalker’s review. That review — or ‘trip report’ in website lingo — might persuade you to buy a ticket. The review will probably even have pictures. Or you might be more interested in detailed food menus. Flyertalk has those, too.
- It helps United understand what customers want. United can’t give travelers everything they desire — the carrier would probably lose money — but the airline can monitor Flyertalk to see if it can make cost effective improvements. O’Leary cited two examples. In the first, he said customers long wanted to know where their departing aircraft was coming from, so they could track it to make sure their own flight would be on time. In the second, O’Leary said customers wanted faster installation of on-board internet. Now, in part because of Flyertalkers, United’s customers may learn where an airplane is coming from through the web, and the airline is moving at a faster clip to install wi-fi on planes.
Flyertalk isn’t just popular among frequent fliers. O’Leary also joked that Flyertalk is a popular website among United employees whose jobs aren’t directly tied to the site.
“It’s hard to walk around the company and walk around any floor and not find that — at least in some row — someone has Flyertalk open,” he said. “Being aware of what’s on Flyertalk certainly inspires us to be a better airline.”