Can I fix airport hell with social media?

by Morgan Siem on December 22, 2009

in Uncategorized

I strive to innovate, improve situations and fix what’s broken.

This weekend, while flying from Raleigh-Durham to Philadelphia and back, I was struck by how much of airport procedure runs on a broken system.

It’s a built-in function for me to try to fix what’s broken. since I can’t fly a plane or stop a blizzard, I brainstormed how I can help with what I can do: social media.

Airports have always been a hassle to me, but this weekend was airport hell. Record-breaking snow falling on Philadelphia brought the airport to a standstill on Saturday, which left it ready to bust on Sunday when two days worth of travelers were creating a bottleneck effect. Passengers waiting two days for flights and then three hours to check-in were losing their tempers at one another and at airport personnel, who in turn were actually screaming at travelers from the top of their lungs.

I thought, does social media have the potential to improve this situation, expedite the process or at least make people smile a little more?

Here’s my brainstorm:

  • what if people could check in at the airport with a mobile device? Foursquare, Gowalla, Triout, etc all allow people to check in at restaurants, bars, stores, etc. What if an app could facilitate airport check in? Travelers could register their cell phone numbers when purchasing tickets, then check in from their phones upon arrival at the airport. Maybe they could even download the ticket onto their screen instead of printing. (I know this requires infrastructure, but hey…they do it for coupons).
  • to take the idea of location-based check in further, suppose passengers could use their phones to check in at their gate or to check in near the gate (restaurants, bars, kiosks). This way, passengers could be located and/or notified when the flight is ready to board, when there’s a delay or when there’s a gate change.
  • 24/7 customer service / Q&A via social media. The lines at the airport to speak with a customer service representative were so long that people with simple questions were starved for information. Employees were losing their cool answering the same questions again and again. If there were any form of customer service via social media, they could answer the question once for all to see and save themselves time and energy.
  • 24/7 customer service would also have benefited me this weekend, when I learned that the call center for damaged baggage claims is only open business hours. I flew Friday evening, at which point the airline destroyed my checked baggage which came back to me soaking wet. Wrapping paper on the gifts inside was disintegrating, my clothes were dripping, my shoes were saturated…And everyone I spoke with told me I’d have to wait until Monday to get my questions answered.
  • Hashtags. What if the flight number became a Twitter hashtag to track conversation going on about the flight and the gate. First and foremost, this facilitates the spread of information. Gate changes and flight delays could be announced to passengers as well as to their family members and friends wanting information about the flights. If everyone could follow the updates on Twitter, it would save the passengers from calling/texting a list of people about every update. A secondary benefit would be that this could also get passengers talking to one another. If you’re stranded in an airport for two days, it helps to make a friend.

All in all, social media improvements won’t mean that your flight can take off in a blizzard, but it just might make the experience a little more pleasant. I actually heard someone scream profanities at a flight attendant announcing another delay.

I do owe a shout out to the kind couple who befriended me in line and helped me get my baggage on the plane. It was a pleasure to meet you, thank you!

Safe holiday travels, everyone. Add your ideas below!

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Ellie December 22, 2009 at 11:53 am

Love the ideas, Morgan. I see people using their mobiles for their boarding passes – very cool.
So much of the clog at airports could be relieved with better MOBILE initiatives in general. Weather alerts, cancellation notices, gate changes, etc all should be sent via mobile to keep people informed and reduce the chaos.

Hopefully there’s an entrepreneur out there just looking for an idea – and your post will launch a success story!


Michael Hubbard Michael Hubbard December 22, 2009 at 12:12 pm

I love the idea of hashtags for flight update info – especially in a case like Philly getting nailed this weekend. It wouldn’t hurt them to just display it on monitors as well – but that’s another conversation.

One thing I did see going through security once was a guy with his boarding pass on his iphone. The security guy took him to a handheld scanner and checked the pass, and then let him through. So somebody is doing it in beta I’m sure – would just love to see it happen faster!


David Dekker david dekker December 22, 2009 at 12:15 pm

Great ideas! Glad I am driving this holiday after reading your post ;) I will fly sometime after someone builds a few of those mobile apps.


Jon Kenney December 22, 2009 at 1:41 pm

Very interesting and with everything undoubtably moving towards smart phones i’m sure you’ll see more mobile applications in airports. As Mike mentioned iPhone does have airport and travel related applications and i’m sure many more are in developement. I would think in the end security issues surrounding check in a boarding passes would be the biggest issue.


Catherine December 23, 2009 at 12:04 am

Great ideas – for now I think airports and airlines will not worry about these systems because right now they would see it only as costs to the company when the companies are failing… Most people choose flying over driving because it is faster and more convenient, even knowing the risks of delays, cancelled flights, and lost/damaged luggage (sorry to hear that) during the winter holidays.

However! If they did invest the time and money into training their employees, building the infrastructure, and working out kinks then I think they would be saving money in the long run and would hold onto customers. So much time is wasted with repeating information and delays in answers (or wrong answers). I say go ahead and pitch this to companies – 1 person on Twitter could the place of 4 in the terminals!

- Much love and happy holidays


Andrew December 27, 2009 at 9:56 pm

I’m late to this conversation.

The flight-number-as-hashtag idea is a good one, though it might have to be combined with the flight date since flight numbers repeat daily.

I wonder what it’d be like to have text alerts sent to travelers within a certain (short-range) distance from their gate. It could be pushed to foreign travelers in their own language and be customized for boarding announcements, delays, luggage carousels, connecting flights, overbooked situations and emergencies.


Morgan Siem December 28, 2009 at 8:52 am

Andrew – Never too late to join the conversation. Thanks for your comment!


Sheila December 28, 2009 at 3:01 pm

After having traveled quite a bit this year,having my flights canceled, being stranded in cities without my luggage, and having my luggage lost several times, I love your ideas. There is nothing more frustrating then waiting for hours at the airport and not being able to find out what’s going on. Several airlines have absolutely no interest in customer service and actually shut down help desks rather than open additional ones when there are numerous delays, so this would cut down on the lines and on the frustration of not getting any information or updates.


Morgan Siem January 8, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Look! RDU put real-time flight status online today!


Morgan Siem January 21, 2010 at 4:14 pm

New update – RDU tweeting about cheap flights out:


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