Social media builds and amplifies what people find interesting, regardless of where it came from.

In 1995 I was returning to Toronto from New York on a routine, almost commuter flight. Just as the plane landed upon our arrival at Pearson Int’l airport, the tires blew and caught fire. The plane skidded across the runway and abruptly stopped amid ambulances, fire trucks, police cars etc. You could see the flames outside the window, which appeared to be close to the engines. Suddenly, the chutes came out and the flurry of fleeing passengers began. People were trying to grab their bags from the upper baggage compartments, stewardesses were screaming for everyone to take off their shoes and get onto the shoot. As you took your turn and entered the door you saw that the drop looked like you were jumping from the CN Tower. With no time to think, you slid down at warp speed to be greeted by someone on the ground shouting for you to run…we ran towards a grassed section well away from the plane that still had flames coming from the tires that had blown and waited for a bus to taking us to a holding terminal. In those days most people did not have a cell phone or laptop—let alone the ability to provide a real-time account of what had happened. Lines formed with people on payphones trying to call their loved ones while sitting there for several hours. Not being in contact with anyone except for those that shared this experience kept this frightening event extremely insular.

Fourteen years later with the US Airlines incident that happened upon take off from La Guardia Airport, the memories of that day come flooding back. It was the same airport I left from all those years ago. In 2009 social media helped profile the heroic pilot through facebook and twitter and allowed people to share the experience as it was happening. Texting and smart phones let people call their loved ones before they even crawled onto the wing of the plane for rescue. Read below the powerful impact that social media had on this latest plane incident.

Incident Sends Airline’s Social Media Index Soaring 

At its peak on Saturday, 215 people a minute were becoming fans of Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III on a Facebook page set up to honor the pilot of US Airways Flight 1549.

That page was created by an employee of social media services provider Vitrue at 10 p.m. on Thursday—the day Sullenberger landed the disabled plane in New York City’s Hudson River, to honor “a real hero.” Ten hours later, there were 18,000 fans and 1,800 posts on Sullenberger’s wall. By 2 p.m. on Sunday, there were more than 300,000 fans and 14,000 wall posts.

Posters range from Shazo Wazo in Brighton and Hove, England, who wrote: “Well done mate, excellent job you’ve done. Bloody marvelous,” to Robert K. Rodriguez of New York, who simultaneously wrote: “god bless you brotha, you can be my pilot any day !!!”

Meanwhile, Vitrue’s Social Media Index was showing scores for US Airways soaring since Thursday. At their peak, the airline’s scores were up 171% from its December average, reaching a three-day average of plus-135%. The Index is a proprietary reporting technology that measures a brand’s online conversations.

Vitrue CEO Reggie Bradford tells Marketing Daily that this “crystallizes the amplification effect social media can uniquely deliver on a cause or brand. If brands can conjure up the right mix of ingredients, there are millions upon millions of passionate consumers who will take social actions.”

The first photo of the airliner sitting in the river was posted on Twitter by someone on board one of the ferries that raced to the rescue of 155 passengers and crew, creating a stir among social media fans and mainstream journalists who debated its importance in the days following the event.

“This is a compelling story which illustrates the power of how truly interconnected, influenced and inspired we are by each other’s thoughts and actions,” says Bradford. “From a business perspective, we think it is important for brands to take note of these passionate and engaged audiences who need a forum in good times and bad.”

The amazing growth in the number of the pilot’s fans certainly speaks well for the newly created Sullenberger brand. That and the story behind it are a boon for an airline that has filed for bankruptcy twice over the past several years, lost 75,000 bags two holiday seasons ago and last year became the first airline to charge for coffee and tea.

Might the favorable publicity and attendant goodwill work in US Airways’ favor, or does an accident—any kind of accident—harm an airline brand?

Says Stuart Vyse, professor of psychology at Connecticut College and author of the award-winning Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition: “US Airways will not be hurt as much as if the crash had had more tragic results, and a truly rational flier would consider the evidently quite skillful work of the pilot as a definite plus.

“But anything that reminds a nervous traveler of a crash is likely to be avoided. If I am right, and this kind of worry affects travelers’ choices of airlines, it will be an entirely human and understandable reaction, but it seems particularly irrational given that the accident was apparently caused by birds.”

Time to figure out how you can use Social Media to share your story!

Best Nicole

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