Between five minutes and five hours: How long airlines take to respond to your complaint on Twitter

  • Travelers often get a faster response on social media than over the phone.
  • Poor customer service can go viral in seconds.
  • American responds to the greatest percentage of social media mentions.
Passengers wait to check in at the Delta Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport.
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Passengers wait to check in at the Delta Airlines terminal at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport.

Lost luggage? Missed connection? Downgraded? Perhaps the fastest way to reach your airline is over social media.

Airlines often respond to passengers faster on social media, where customers air their travel troubles to their airline and the public, than over the phone.

Social media has exposed what goes on on airplanes to millions of people, and image-conscious airlines are aware how quickly incidents can go viral. Think of the violent dragging of a United Airlines passenger off a flight last April or Ann Coulter's feud with Delta Air Lines over a seat assignment change.

Most traveler comments (yes, sometimes customers are there to offer a compliment) are routine travel issues: delays, lost items, or cancellations.

The time it takes for airlines to respond varies, but some passengers get a response in less than five minutes, according to a new study by Conversocial, a customer service consulting firm.

JetBlue received the highest marks among North American airlines for its response speed, taking an average four minutes and 50 seconds to reply to passengers on Twitter. United came in last at one hour and 34 minutes, far lower than the average of about 20 minutes. The airline had more social media mentions per hour than other North American airlines, the study said.

"We recognize that oftentimes social media is the most convenient way for customers to interact with us and we are continuing to work hard on a daily basis to improve our response time," a spokeswoman said, adding that the airline plans to increase its social media staffing team by more than 150 percent by the end of March.

Among European and Middle Eastern airlines, Finnair took the longest to respond to Twitter mentions: more than five and a half hours, the study said. The Helsinki-based airline wasn't immediately available for comment. Germany's Lufthansa had the fastest response time at 9 minutes and 15 seconds.

Airlines receive thousands of mentions online and don't respond to even half of them. Conversocial analyzed mentions of airlines' Twitter handles between Oct. 5-8. American Airlines scored highest among North American carriers, followed by Delta at 31 percent.

Sometimes when air travel goes awry, such as in the wake of a storm, social media won't cut it because such large numbers of travelers are in need of assistance. Following a powerful winter storm, Delta had set up a hotline for passengers whose trips were disrupted at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, after bottlenecks stranded thousands. But passengers upset about about the hotline's long hold times