DALLAS - Airlines no longer just make money taking travelers where they want to go. Some carriers now show up where their passengers already are.
"We definitely want to be where our customers are, so we've noticed over the past couple years, our customers are on our social channels," said Rob Hahn with Southwest Airlines.
The Dallas-based carrier has a massive following on Twitter; 1.4 million of them, which is more than American, United and Delta combined. JetBlue remains on top with the total number of followers, at more than 1.7 million.
"Customers in this day and age of technology want their answers right now," Hahn explained. "So if we can provide them that answer - provide them that rebooked flight immediately - that saves them from having to call our customer service center or send us an e-mail."
Southwest has six employees dedicated to social media, often only during regular business hours. The airline created its team by drawing employees from different departments, including customer service, marketing, and communications.
This team doesn't just respond to questions, comments, and criticism on Twitter. Southwest employees also rebook flights, track bags, and issue travel vouchers all in 140 characters or less.
"Before social media, most of our interaction was over the telephone or in our airports -- our customers interacting with our station personnel," Hahn said.
Surprisingly, many still prefer that. Southwest said it has not seen a measurable decline at its call centers. Regardless, it's building its own social media center inside its Dallas headquarters.
On the fifth floor of American Airlines' Fort Worth headquarters, 15 employees are dedicated to social media -- more than twice the amount at Southwest.
Both locally-based airlines also maintain accounts on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest, though Twitter is where they see most of their activity.
"We're investing. Six are on Twitter, doing 24/7," said Jonathan Pierce with American Airlines.
American has fewer Twitter followers than Southwest at just under a half million, but this team Tweets more than any other airline.
"We see around 1,200 [mentions or direct messages] everyday," Pierce said.
American said it tries to respond to all messages or mentions within 10 minutes, since many are from customers in transit.
No question, these feeds are more about customer service than marketing or anything else. But indirectly, they're also about brand building. Responding and resolving issues real-time creates an army of advocates for the airlines -- even from those who post negative messages.
"It can make a tremendous positive impact to sentiment, because often times they'll get a response to resolve the issue and they'll retweet it and say, 'what a great experience' and they become a brand advocate," said Mike Merrill, Director of Marketing for ReachLocal. "The goal is to build an army of advocates for the business."
And advocates with a good experience tell others, Merrill added.
Besides his official title at the online marketing firm, Merrill also founded the Social Media Club of Dallas.
"Some of these brands like Southwest and American have more Twitter followers than the amount of average monthly views on their website," he said. "So the impression impact could potentially be dramatically larger."
Airline customer service has always been a thankless job. But its presence on social media continues to evolve as the power of participating for passengers does, too.