socialBefore the latest social media revolution, Jessica Gottlieb would have probably watched helplessly when her kids, Jane and Alexander, were trapped on the tarmac, waiting for their Virgin America flight to take off.

But that’s so 2008. When it happened to her last week, the Los Angeles-based blogger reached for her iPhone and twittered about her troubles. “Dear Virgin Air,” she wrote. “My children have been on the tarmac for one hour with 90 more minutes to wait. I am at JFK gate b25. Pls RT.”

That last request — please “RT” — is shorthand for Gottlieb’s nearly 10,000 followers to “retweet” her message, or rebroadcast it to their followers. And retweet they did. Within minutes, Virgin had phoned Gottlieb to reassure her that her kids would be fine.

“They contacted the gate agent manager and explained to us the entire weather situation,” she says. “Within 20 minutes of that conversation, the plane took off.”

The same forces that threaten to unravel a repressive Iranian regime are revolutionizing the way Americans travel. Social media sites that allow people to interact in the moment are changing how travel companies talk to their customers — and how their customers talk back.

The net result? Travel could improve for everyone.

Behind the scenes
It may not come as a surprise that this movement is being powered by microblogging sites like Twitter, which allows travelers to communicate in short, 140-character bursts of text, and Facebook, the ubiquitous social networking site. (For more on microblogging and travel, see my recent column on the subject.) Sites like these let travelers share information almost at the same rate they receive it (or “real time,” in tech parlance), which is something previous Web-based services didn’t let travelers do.

But few people have come to understand the far-reaching implications of the technology. Talk with someone like Cheryl Spezia, the vice president of marketing at the Destin, Fla.-based vacation rental company ResortQuest, and you get a sense that the relationship between the travel industry and its customers is being rewritten. “The dynamics have changed,” she says.

ResortQuest’s Twitter presence has helped guests get quick answers — and sometimes action — about their accommodations. In one memorable case, a condo with a broken air conditioner that was in less-than-presentable shape was promptly fixed when it was brought to the company’s attention through Twitter.

Third wave
In order to understand what’s happening here, let’s hit “rewind” for a second. There have actually been three distinct customer service uprisings enabled, in part, by the Internet. In the late 1990s, Web sites and moderated discussion forums pushed the first wave of the revolution. But many travel companies brushed these sites off because they were easily managed or ignored.

About a decade ago, blogs and emerging social networks like MySpace and LinkedIn gave rise to a second customer rights movement that is just now abating. The third wave, which harnesses the influence of Facebook and Twitter and may peak with a new Internet standard coincidentally called Google Wave, is just now on the horizon.

It’s a big one.

Consider Gottlieb’s choices. In 1998, she might have shared her story on a popular members-only online forum, but it probably would have languished there for weeks or the airline may have even persuaded a moderator to delete it. In 2005, she could have told her story on a social networking site, but her kids would have landed in LA before Virgin caught wind of the problem.

Today, the results are practically immediate.

Travel companies are paying close attention this time. Southwest Airlines lists nearly 70,000 “fans” on its Facebook page, while Virgin Atlantic has close to 20,000 and American Airlines has more than 10,000. JetBlue leads the pack on Twitter, with well over 700,000 followers. Southwest has more than 100,000 followers.

How do you catch this third wave, ensuring a better customer service experience when you travel? Here are a few tips:

1. Sign up now.
An account on Twitter or Facebook is free. Once you’ve joined, “friend” or follow anyone in your address book that also belongs to these sites, and then start talking. Remember, it’s a numbers game. A travel company is likelier to pay attention to someone with 10,000 followers than a lone wolf with just a handful of contacts. So don’t be shy.

2. Get engaged.
Becoming a “friend” to a socially active travel company, which means following their Twitter feed or becoming a “fan” of their Facebook page, is the next step. Often, they’ll begin paying attention to what you’re doing. So when you have something important to say about customer service, these airlines, car rental companies and hotels will be far likelier to listen to you than if you were a random customer.

3. Travel with a company that understands.
“When it comes to a holistic social media strategy, I feel many airlines are either lost, or still experimenting,” says Shashank Nigam, the chief executive of the aviation branding company SimpliFlying. “Or at least that’s how it seems to the outsider.” Pick a travel company at the vanguard of these changes, and you’re likelier to be heard. Nigam says among the airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and Alaska Airlines, have reached that level. Many other travel brands, including Marriott, Starwood and Hertz also have strong social media presences.

4. Keep it positive.
For now, at least, companies are behaving more like people on these social networking sites. In other words, a kind word can really take you a long way. It did for Paul Marr, who works for an advertising agency in Vancouver and recently found $120 in unexpected fees on his Allegiant Air ticket. He tried contacting the carrier through normal channels — to no avail — so he sent a friendly message to its Twitter account. Within minutes, his problem was fixed. “Need an airline that offers great deals and listens on Twitter?” he asked his followers. “@allegiantair called me within 30 mins of my last post. Grt cstmr service!”

5. Be patient.
Travel companies are still finding their way in this new world. Many corporations that are involved in social media aren’t really sure how they’ll use it in the future, only that it is likely to be useful. For example, the iconic Westin Bonaventure in Los Angeles chats with customers and anyone else who happens to be on Twitter. Its social-media claim to fame, at least in the customer service department, is helping a guest who tweeted that he had a moth in his room. “He thanked us via Twitter, and also told us that the iron in his room was broken,” says hotel spokeswoman Melanie Boyer. “So we sent up a new one.” Not exactly a stop-the-presses success story until you consider the Bonaventure is one of only a few Los Angeles hotel that bothers to listen to the twittersphere.

6. Look to the next thing.
Google Wave, for example, is a new communication platform where text, photos and other information can be exchanged in real time. It’s expected to debut later this year, and when it does, be there along with the other early adopters. It’s only a matter of time before others join in, including some forward-looking travel companies. You’ll have their ear — at least until everyone else arrives.

It’s clear to me that the third customer service revolution isn’t the end, but a beginning. Travelers with a legitimate grievance used to be powerless to change their fate. Today, anyone with a Twitter account can get immediate satisfaction.

Who knows what could happen next?