Web 2.0 face-off: British Airways vs. Virgin Atlantic

What is it about airlines that attract so much online angst? Every other week there seems to be a new Facebook group or YouTube video protesting some policy change or service snafu. Over the summer, a musician posted a video protest on YouTube after his guitar was trashed by baggage handlers working for United Airlines. The video quickly went viral and has been viewed 5,626,168 times as of this writing. More recently, a travel agent in London set up a "pressure group" on Facebook targeting British Airways and its expensive fees to reserve seats in advance. Twitter has become a favorite place to rant about airline indignities, thanks in large part to the ability to do so with a mobile phone in the terminal right after a flight has been cancelled or airline staff have behaved rudely.

But the interesting thing about this trend is it's not just customers who are using social networks and other Web 2.0 tools to protest shoddy airline service and questionable fees. Some airlines are leveraging the angst and their own Web 2.0 arsenals to engage customers and snub rivals. For instance, on the British Airways protest page described above, we noticed a reference to a post on Virgin Atlantic's own fan page, which read:

"With BA's more expensive seating, passengers now have the option to choose a better value-for-money airline like Virgin Atlantic. We do not charge for pre-assigned seats and have no plans to do so."

This statement has attracted 115 "likes" and 70 comments, many of which praise Virgin and/or criticize BA. The statement appeared on Virgin America's official Facebook fan page, which currently has 19,847 fans. The airline has also built up an impressive 34,123 Twitter followers. This compares with BA's 4,352 Facebook fans and 6,969 Twitter followers.

Social networking is clearly going to be a part of the business landscape going forward. That's not because it's a cool fad, but rather because it's where customers are spending more and more of their time. For those airlines which embrace and leverage these networks, there are many opportunities to engage customers in positive ways. But for those airlines that prefer to stick with their Web 1.0 scripts -- "weekly special" emails, canned responses to customer enquiries, and service-based websites -- there's a real risk that they'll be left behind.

TravelWeekly.co.uk, SmartBrief.com, Facebook, Virgin Atlantic and British Airways Facebook and Twitter pages.