Airline Twitter promotion attracts huge crowds

JetBlue said it had 1,000 free tickets to give away to New Yorkers who showed up at a location broadcasted via Twitter. The only complaint so far: Couldn't there be more?

Caroline McCarthy Former Staff writer, CNET News
Caroline McCarthy, a CNET News staff writer, is a downtown Manhattanite happily addicted to social-media tools and restaurant blogs. Her pre-CNET resume includes interning at an IT security firm and brewing cappuccinos.
Caroline McCarthy
3 min read
JetBlue employee Morgan Johnston took this photo of the people who showed up in the Financial District when the airline launched an ambitious campaign to give away free tickets by telling Twitter users where to show up. Morgan Johnston

NEW YORK--It was apparently one step short of a cattle stampede when low-cost airline JetBlue used its Twitter account to announce that as part of its 10th anniversary celebration it would be giving out about a thousand free round-trip tickets at three undisclosed locations in Manhattan on Wednesday.

"One of the things we knew was that people were just going to follow us," JetBlue public relations representative Morgan Johnston told CNET, relating anecdotes about one woman who claimed she sprinted in heels from midtown to the Financial District (one of the giveaway spots), people chasing the JetBlue team in taxis as they left one location to head to the next, entire offices clearing out when they heard that one of the ticket giveaways was nearby, and a cab driver who left his passenger behind in order to get out and claim a ticket. "It was like the Pied Piper of Hamlin."

Twitter user Rana Sobhany snapped a cell phone photo of the JetBlue ticket giveaway in another location. Rana Sobhany

CNET caught up with Johnston, whose team orchestrated the stunt, when he was at the airline's John F. Kennedy International Airport terminal to "see off" a plane headed to Austin, Texas the day before the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSWi). The timing was convenient: the gate for the morning flight was packed with tech industry types headed to SXSWi who were well aware of the giveaway's success and who were eagerly grilling Johnston on whether they'd be giving away even more tickets at the annual digital-media blitz, which runs from Friday through Tuesday. (His answer: probably not.)

The mob scene on Wednesday was particularly prolific because the tickets were valid for a round-trip flight between any destinations that JetBlue flies, which include a smattering of Caribbean vacation spots in addition to U.S. cities (though the taxes and fees for any international destinations were not covered by the free pass).

To make it more challenging, people who wanted tickets had to bring something along with them: at the first stop, a "birthday card" for JetBlue ("Apparently there was a Hallmark store nearby that was very thankful for our presence," Johnston said); at the second, an item of blue clothing and something related to planes (there were a lot of bags of peanuts in line); at the third, a postcard (handmade was OK) depicting the tenth city out of which JetBlue started operating flights. That, of course, meant the person in question would have to do some Googling to find out what that city is.

The tickets--about 300 in each location--were gone within about 20 minutes of each Twitter announcement going up, Johnston said; it took only three to five minutes for the first person to show up in line, even at the location where people had to make a postcard for the mystery destination (which turned out to be West Palm Beach, Fla.).

Johnston said JetBlue was inspired by moving-target giveaways like those orchestrated by the Kogi BBQ taco trucks in Los Angeles, which inspires frequent mob scenes, supply shortages, and even the occasional Twitter impersonator who decides to use the trucks' popularity to trick people into showing up at the wrong location. It's hard to harness the crowds on Twitter, but JetBlue got lucky: Nobody got hurt, nobody sabotaged the campaign, and there was no mob of negative backlash on Twitter from folks who showed up a second too late.

It can be a risky PR or customer service move to put together something that high-profile and potentially uncontrollable, especially considering that the last big headline about airlines and Twitter involved film director Kevin Smith (who has over a million Twitter followers) lambasting Southwest Airlines after he got kicked off a flight.

The company had, however, been concerned about pranksters.

"I was asking (additional JetBlue employees) to keep an eye out for someone retweeting fake locations, because if I were a person interested in throwing someone off, I would retweet @jetblue somewhere else," Johnston said.