Case Study: Using Twitter, American Airlines Defuses Security Incident

The American Airlines response to a security threat aboard one if its flights elicited congratulatory tweets like this one from New York Times tech writer David Pogue, who has close to 1.5 million followers. Image courtesy of Weber Shandwick

Company: American Airlines

Agency: Weber Shandwick

Timeframe: August 19, 2010

Not all successful PR campaigns are born out of meeting rooms and brainstorm sessions—planning every precise detail down to the timing of tweets. This was especially true on Aug. 19, 2010, when a bomb threat was received by San Francisco police targeting American Airlines Flight 24 that same day. If not handled immediately in real time through social media, this crisis situation threatened to damage the airline’s long-term reputation of tight security.

PR agency Weber Shandwick and American Airlines ’ social media team couldn’t stand on the sidelines—they had to be fast and accurate in their responses or risk letting rumors and misinformation run rampant.


The full flight, with 163 passengers and 11 crew members, was scheduled to depart for New York’s JFK International Airport at 7:30 a.m. It was halted shortly before takeoff after local police were alerted about an anonymous phone call threat to hijack the plane. The plane was moved to a remote section of the tarmac and sequestered for more than two hours.

The flight crew initially reported that the atmosphere on the plane was generally calm. Eventually, rumors circulated among passengers connected to the Internet about a hijacking or bomb threat. Passengers began to panic and started tweeting unconfirmed information and speculation that the plane had been hijacked.

The tweets were aimed at major news networks like CNN and Fox News—which began reporting that there was a possible bomb threat/hijacking aboard AA24.

The four-person combined Weber Shandwick/American Airlines social media team, located in Ft. Worth, Texas, launched its crisis response plan, with the following specific objectives:

• Reassure audiences by influencing the flow of information through immediate updates on the @AAirwaves Twitter account. Engage directly with the passengers aboard the plane via Twitter as the team reported about conditions inside the plane and passenger sentiment.

• Address and correct rumors and erroneous information through the responses/re-tweets of American’s situation updates.

• Direct constant updates to media for their ongoing reporting of the situation.


Jonathan Bird, American’s creative manager for social media, says this was airline’s first social-led approach to crisis response. “During the day, we have our eyeballs on the social channels through monitoring service Radian6,” says Bird. “For this incident we saw chatter coming directly at us—in the form of @ mentions on Twitter about a plane stuck on the runway at SFO—and so we jumped in as we normally would to help.”

In response to passenger tweets, the team called American’s Systems Operations Center (SOC) to find out what was happening with the flight. It was then that they discovered what the San Francisco police and the flight crew already knew—that a security threat had been received.

Christopher Vary, SVP, digital communications and emerging media for Weber Shandwick, and Brian Conway, a social media account executive, already embedded within American Airlines’ media monitoring team, decided it was time to become proactive.


Here’s how American Airlines’ @AAirwaves Twitter team took control of the situation:

1. Determined the facts— what people were saying online, and what was actually happening, according to the SOC. “Once we knew the facts, we let people know that the authorities were on it and that they could trust us,” says Conway.

2. Engaged directly with passengers on the airplane. Passengers Campbell McKellar (@cmckella) and Jay Sears (@jaysears) were tweeting regular updates of the situation from their perspective, which included photos of the cabin and police around the aircraft. Soon enough, major newspapers and news channels were asking them for information about what was happening on the aircraft. The passengers then began communicating directly with @AAirwaves and even CNN’s Rick Sanchez.

3. Avoided panic. The team calmed nerves by clearly stating the cause of the incident (a phoned-in threat and not an actual hijacking attempt).

When the SOC eventually confirmed with law enforcement that the phone call was a hoax, the team communicated, play-by-play, what was happening with the plane—that there was no hostage situation, and that all passengers were deplaning, being rescreened and re-booked,” said Conway.


Within the span of a few hours, the situation—and Twitter chatter—went mainstream. American’s “Hang in there, the authorities are taking care of things” tweet was the most retweeted message of the event; it was picked up by CNN, USA World Report and hundreds of other sites and Twitter channels. Customers, airline bloggers and aviation enthusiasts began retweeting American’s updates, helping to spread the message to more than 100,000-plus followers in two hours. More than 574 tweets were reported about the event, totaling a reach of more than 1.5 million people (see the graphic that shows the spike).

Other results include:

• Twitter mentions and a blog post by CNN host Sanchez about American’s efforts to reassure passengers and update the public.

• Positive social and traditional media coverage, including a YouTube video post, “Jetliner Grounded in San Francisco After Threat,” was picked up by more than 78,000 sites.

The crisis was a test of epic proportions for Weber Shandwick and American Airlines.

“The experience opened our eyes to the fact that we need to be able to respond immediately and accurately every time,” says Bird. “And we are getting faster, better integrated and far less siloed.”

And there were plenty of lessons learned for future emergencies, including being more proactive with traditional media via Twitter, says Conway.

American Airlines (and PR) are proving that real-time customer relations via social media is transforming both crisis management and the conversations about a brand, which Bird says definitively moves the business needle forward. PRN

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Jonathan Bird, [email protected], Brian Conway, [email protected], Christopher Vary, [email protected]. David B. Thomas, @DavidBThomas.

Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg