Over the course of the last year, incidents such as Southwest Airlines’ Kevin Smith fiasco, and the ominous Icelandic ash cloud have elevated branded tweeting from a viable marketing helping hand to an indispensable B2C tool.

Searching Mashable for “airlines on Twitter” brings up a list of content long enough to warrant its own tag, with similar content appearing everywhere from marketing blogs to travel and tourism websites.

Airlines on Twitter” was even poached as a domain name, hosting a tool for tracking airlines’ Twitter usage in real time. Like dog years to human, time on the Web seems to pass by sevenfold, and the business world is now well aware of the impact Twitter has had, and continues to have on their brands.

Content first

Smart airlines have learned that Twitter is more than a customer service platform or PR message board. With some brands offering funny and off-the-cuff content on a rapid cycle, following airlines can often be more entertaining and rewarding a pastime for Twitter users than following some celebrities. Air New Zealand (@FlyAirNz) out-tweets some of its much larger competitors, updating followers on the exploits of its puppet mascot, Rico. FlyAirNZ’s tweeted content regularly traverses the Web, often finding itself on Facebook, blogs and other websites outside of the company’s reach.

Air New Zealand Simpliflying Twitter

For an extreme example of content standing alone, check out the Aloha_Airlines Twitter feed. Even though the defunct airline folded its wings in March of 2008, its Twitter account managed to retain a fair-sized following for well over a year, solely on the power of its customer engagement.

Giving nods to other airlines and updating followers on the status of employees, Aloha lived on in spirit, and even managed to make it into more than one “best airline on Twitter” list despite being permanently grounded.

Aloha Airlines Twitter

Branded contests

A popular form of branded content, contests and cross-promotions are springing up in hash tags all over Twitter. Drawing on the popularity of the Awkward Family Photo blog, Virgin Airlines offered a family vacation package in exchange for embarrassing family portraits.

EasyJet created the 15-Hour Blogger Challenge, showcasing four prominent travel bloggers in four destinations with frequent updates. Followers vote on their favourite journey for a chance to win a short trip to the winning city.

Cheeps & Twares

Some airlines do contests, others prefer deals. JetBlue pioneered the latter with their famous “Cheeps” concept. In the last six months, other companies have been quick to mimic these lightning-fast last-minute airfare specials on Twitter, with their own cutely named fare deals; United Airlines does “Twares,” for instance. Notably effective from day one, these offers continue to drive up hits to the companies’ main sites and effectively push sales in off-seasons.

Jet Blue Cheeps Twitter

Turbulence

Engaging in the real-time Web hasn’t been smooth sailing for all airlines. With the speed and scale of Twitter’s reach, it’s easy for brands to lose control of their message. As we reported earlier this year, Kevin Smith’s “not-so-silent” dust-up with Southwest Airlines was exacerbated by Southwest’s allegedly “snotty” online persona which, though familiar to the airline’s fans, was jarring to many outsiders, including the well-known director.

Like all recognizable brands on Twitter, airlines have had oodles of imitators, though the large majority of phonies have been weeded out at this point in the game. Still, Twitter users have caused their fair share of controversy in the world of airlines outside of airlines’ official accounts, including this hoax during the Haiti crisis, and this one following the Icelandic volcano eruptions.

Engage

Though many critics have praised Twitter’s real-time customer service capabilities, others suggest that a bandwagon mentality is the real driving force behind brands warming to social media trends, pointing out that embracing the technology is not the same as engaging with technology.

Some airlines still seem to prefer to use Twitter as a one-way PR tool, neglecting a large and integral part of the network’s value as a medium. In an interesting (if not exactly scientific) experiment, travel blog A Tramp Abroad attempted to panel airline Twitter usage by directing this query @15 major airlines:

We’re doing a survey – do you generally respond to customer inquiries received on Twitter? Average response time?

This experiment was completed in July 2010, with roughly 60 percent of airlines queried responding within 24 hours. Again, time flies in the digital world, and chances are that percentage has grown considerably, even just three months later. All things considered, it’s clear that Twitter’s status as a liaison between companies and customers has taken off, and will likely continue to soar.

Further reading: Airlines on Twitter

SimpliFlying’s list of interesting airline and aviation experts on Twitter

Cheap-o-Air’s top airlines on Twitter

About.com’s list of Top Ten Airlines on Twitter

Measure your favourite airline’s tweet-score with Tweetlevel.com

Track airlines’ activity on airlinesonTwitter.com.