How US airlines are driving engagement on the web and social

May 30, 2019

Written by Tamer Abouleinein

According to Reuters, U.S. summer air travel will reach record highs this year, despite the grounding of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft. U.S. airlines are expected to carry 257.4 million passengers between June 1st and August 31st, a 3.4 percent increase from last year’s record of 248.8 million passengers.

In an era where consumer expectations of brands extend far beyond the initial transaction, it has become critical for marketing and communications teams to ensure their brands are consistently getting quality coverage and producing engaging content.

Heading into a summer predicted to yield record travel figures, we took a look at how six major US airlines have fared year-to-date (Jan 1, 2019 – May 20th 2019).

To do this, we looked at engagement on earned and owned content across the web and social for two distinct groups: major and niche operators. For purposes of this analysis, we have defined the former as offering more than 300 routes and the latter as offering fewer than 120 routes. The first group includes United, American Airlines, and Delta, and the second group is comprised of JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, and Southwest.

Engagement to web content about airlines

United Airlines received the most engaged coverage by far, but overall total engagement (Facebook likes, shares, comments, and reactions, plus influencer tweets and pins) on earned media across the web has been steadily declining across all six airlines since the start of the year.

Engagement volume has been roughly comparable across the set, however, there was one moment in particular when Southwest earned almost 1.5 million engagements on approximately 1,700 posts during March 4th to March 5th. The headlines raved about Southwest’s introductory Hawaii flights which were offered at $49 per one-way ticket. Larger and smaller publishers, such as and, respectively, garnered six-figure engagement totals on their articles.

Diving deeper into the individual pieces of content, the single most engaged article (~150,00 engagements) was from in relation to the stance pilots were taking against President Trump’s position on a government shutdown. The runner-up was a piece from covering the mother-daughter duo who piloted a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Atlanta, garnering roughly 143,000 engagements.

Surprisingly, the pop-out themes were low-fare travel deals (Southwest $49 Hawaii route), political stances (pilots challenging Trump), and feel-good stories (Delta mother-daughter pilot duo), rather than the 737 MAX controversy.

Facebook Page engagement for US airlines

Looking at the owned Pages across these airlines, it’s clear that Southwest gets all the love, evidenced by their 6 million page likes, high average engagement, and largest total engagement sum at almost half a million. Their performance with respect to these top-line metrics has positioned them to eclipse the competition, despite the brand being targeted as a key airline during the 737 MAX 8 crisis.

Although Southwest led the pack overall, United had the most engaged on all of their videos at 71,000 engagements, with the “photoshoot in the sky” video coming out on top at 11,000 engagements.
Southwest dominated in the photos category with almost 250,000 engagements on all photos compared to the runner-up, Alaska Airlines at 122,000 engagements. A post from January 3rd, honoring their late founder, Herb Kelleher, garnered roughly 30,000 engagements alone.

When looking at web links, again, Southwest came out way ahead of the pack with 158,000 total engagements. The post was related to their #SouthwestStorytellers campaign and linked to a Thrillist article with a headline that read, ‘Southwest Will Fly You Around the World for Free to Take Photos and Tell Stories.’

Post Count vs Interaction Performance for airlines

In analyzing the post volume and formats against engagement results, the returns were varied across brands.

For example, 10% of JetBlue’s Facebook posts were videos, and those accounted for 20% of their total engagement. In contrast, 64% of their posts were links, and that  accounted for less than half of all of their engagement. Similar results were prevalent across each brand’s format mix. 

Top Facebook Posts

Looking at the top ten posts across brands, Southwest has clearly outperformed all competitors. The top posts overall, and for Southwest, were comprised of photos. However, the most interesting feature of their second top performing post was that it was a text-photo.

The ‘photo’ was their official statement regarding their handling of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 crisis. Execution-wise, the reaction data (excluding comments and shares, each generating 4k, respectively) suggests this message was a success on Facebook.

Top Takeaways

  • High quality earned web coverage is more impactful than quantity of coverage, specifically from a measurement perspective
  • Earned media pertaining to marketing activations, such as low fares and new routes, may perform best for airline brands due to appeal toward cost-conscious travelers
  • Different post formats yield varied results for each brand. With the right data in-hand, adjustments can be made at the post level to maximize engagement potential
  • In a crisis, if a thoughtful statement requires issuance, all post formats, or hybrid formats may be considered on the basis of engagement in an effort to improve messaging impact


Want to get historical analysis for engagement of your brand? Request a demo of NewsWhip.

A previous version of this post contained a reference to status updates that has been removed for clarity.

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