Social Networking Takes Flight

A growing number of frequent fliers are using their mobile devices to create an informal travelers’ community in airports and aloft, thanks to the ubiquity of WiFi. Airlines are finding it a money-maker, by encouraging social media activity in the air through its fee-based WiFi on planes.

More than 10 airlines in North America, including American, Delta and Southwest, are wiring their planes for Internet access, and major foreign airlines like Lufthansa are introducing new technology that will let customers connect on transoceanic flights, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

About 17 to 20 percent of passengers on Virgin America, which has wired its entire 28-plane fleet for the Internet, are online at any given time, according to the airline. On longer flights, about a third of passengers go online.

The benefits of staying connected became clear several months ago during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano that grounded thousands of European flights. Facebook and Twitter set up sites for stranded travelers, who swapped ideas and offered rides to ferry terminals, and Twitter had its own thread. Based on anecdotal reports, the sites helped in getting information out quickly.

Airlines are using Twitter to resolve problems while still in flight. For example, a passenger on a Virgin America flight once sent an e-mail message to the airline from his seat, saying that he was not pleased with the sandwich he had just eaten. A customer service representative on the ground sent a message back to the plane, and shortly thereafter the passenger was served an acceptable substitute.