"Fly by the tips of your fingers."
That was the slogan on cocktail napkins that doubled as toilet paper on a recent United Airlines international flight, according to a post on FlyerTalk, a popular online message forum.
"Apparently, they ran out in one (lavatory) half-way home and couldn't bother to transfer a roll from another," wrote the original poster, who included a photo of the napkins found inside a makeshift container.
The thread has generated at least 10 pages of comments poking fun at United's toilet paper supply and other business practices.
"You guys are doing it wrong," wrote one person, tongue in cheek. "I purchased a yearly TP subscription on united.com. I do not have this problem."
Wrote another: "a great new benefit to card members at boarding."
Complaining via Twitter
In the days before online travel forms and social media, airlines had more control over the process by which customers complained and commented on their services. It usually involved a typed letter sent to corporate headquarters with some distant hope that the company might respond.
Now customers can tweet out their complaints -- along with pictures and video -- right from their airline gate, flight or hotel room, and they expect companies to respond within minutes.
It's a brave new world in the travel industry, where customers can sometimes control the conversation about the travel providers they use. And it's up to the often anonymous members of an online forum or the wider community of Twitter and other social media to decide if the complaint is legitimate.
An airline's social media team
Airlines, cruise lines and hotels are among the many travel companies hiring social media teams to establish a presence online and quickly respond to online complaints and comments.
JetBlue Airways has a team of about 30 employees to respond quickly to customers who follow JetBlue on Twitter, "like" the airline on Facebook and simply mention the airline on any social media outlets.
"If someone tweets that they're at an (airport) gate in Chicago and not getting a lot of information about their flight, we will let them know the status of the flight," said Morgan Johnston, JetBlue's corporate communications manager and social media strategist. "If one person is tweeting, there's probably another 149 people who have the same concerns."
The social media teams don't have much time to sort out the facts from the fiction, but they do what they can.
"If there's a direct question, we try to respond within 15 minutes, and more often, it's under five minutes," Morgan said. "This is real-time media. If I'm a customer, I can get out four tweets in five minutes."
Airlines that are honest and transparent in their daily operations will generate a reservoir of goodwill and be forgiven more quickly when they make mistakes, said Johnston. That is, of course, if their employees move to fix those mistakes quickly.
The danger of not participating? "If you're not part of the conversation, you don't have any ability to change the direction of it," Johnston said.
Don't want the boss to be surprised
Many companies also dedicate social media staffers to monitor forum conversations.
At least 185 companies have representatives participating in various conversations on FlyerTalk, where the United Airlines toilet paper photo was posted.
"They all read the site because they don't want their bosses to see it on FlyerTalk (first)," said Brent Conver, FlyerTalk's general manager.
"They're also managing customer service," he said. "If I had a bad flight and it shows up on FlyerTalk, they can get a handle on it. They don't want to look or be unresponsive."
It's important, Conver said, that the travel companies have employees that can engage in the conversation.
"I see a lot of reps think it's an ad campaign, who post and don't come back," he said. "If you don't take a conversational tone, people don't relate to you. You have to be active, watching and paying attention and making a concerted approach to solve a problem."