Twitter may be a social revolution or it may be a fad, but there are real dangers when this form of communication is not taken as seriously as any other customer/company interface.

US Airways in April accidently tweeted a highly graphic pornographic image of a naked woman to one of its customers who had tweeted a complaint. US Airways—now part of the new American Airlines—acknowledged the image was attached to its tweet in error, apologized and immediately began investigating the mistake. “We apologize for an inappropriate image recently shared as a link in one of our responses,” US Airways tweeted. American also began a review of its tweet processes. 

Airlines are increasingly using Twitter as a medium for communicating with their customers and for handling complaints. Many corporations outside the air transport industry similarly use Twitter as a marketing, promotions and customer interface tool. And other companies have made mistakes, ranging from the merely embarrassing to the highly offensive. Social media’s great attraction is the ease and low cost with which it can reach vast numbers of people directly. The down side is that it is also far harder to monitor and control, is more susceptible to human error, and mistakes go viral instantly.  

Airlines—indeed, all companies—must be as rigorous about their tweet processes as they are about all other public communications, putting in place approval systems and ensuring standards are understood and adhered to. And there should be an action plan in place to deal with mistakes rapidly, as American did.

A more worrisome issue related to tweets and airlines occurred just days after the US Airways incident. A 14-year-old girl in The Netherlands tweeted to American Airlines what she thought was a joke: “hello, my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.” Not surprisingly, American responded via Twitter saying that her details would be passed to the FBI. Both tweets were deleted and the girl’s Twitter account was suspended. 

What followed, however, is the most troubling aspect of Twitter. The tweet and its response went viral and it became trendy to tweet bomb threats to American and Southwest Airlines, which both received numerous “copycat” tweets, causing enormous hassles for the airlines. 

This may be part of a broader social behavior problem that needs to be addressed. IATA and ICAO have recently moved to clarify and tighten rules for dealing with unruly passenger behavior during flights. IATA says its airlines now handle some 300 incidents a week and the problem is growing (see Analysis, page 22). It may be time to consider extending rules to include other types of interference with airline operations to ensure that culprits face severe consequences for their “pranks.” In the US, a person who “lasers” an airliner can get away with a $10,000 fine. The Dept. of Transportation, meanwhile, can fine an airline millions of dollars for breaching its Tarmac Delay Rule.

When it comes to who faces the consequences for bad behavior, the rules are upside down.