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News >  Travel

Attracting fliers

Carol Sottili The Washington Post

Looking to book an airline ticket on the Internet? Chances are you’ll first head to Travelocity, Orbitz or Expedia.

With state-of-the-art technology and access to a wide range of flights on competing airlines, the well-funded Big Three – along with smaller rivals such as OneTravel and CheapTickets – have been able to take a considerable chunk of the action from the airlines’ own sites.

But the power may be shifting as financially strapped airlines try to control a bigger share of their inventories. In recent months, the airlines have fought back with steps designed to attract more customers to their sites:

•Many carriers have started offering price guarantees. American and United are the latest, joining Continental and Northwest, to promise that no third-party site will undercut their own Web site prices. The guarantees offer to refund the price difference, plus provide a $50 voucher for future travel, to travelers who can prove that they found on the same day the same flight for at least $5 less elsewhere.

•More modern and sophisticated systems have been established to locate the best fares. For example, Continental and America West now use ITA Software, a well-regarded technology for searching fares, to power their booking systems.

•A number of carriers offer frequent-flier bonus miles to those who book on their Web site. American, United, Northwest and Delta are among those that provide 1,000 extra miles just for booking at their sites.

•Several airlines occasionally offer special fares that can be booked only on their Web sites. Spirit Airlines, for example, recently posted fares from Reagan National starting at $29 each way exclusively through its Web site. And Southwest, which does not sell through third-party booking sites, launched a downloadable feature called Ding! on its Web site that notifies users of special fares.

It’s not just a matter of pride for the airlines. A study by the Government Accountability Office found that the airlines paid more than $7 billion to distribute tickets in 2002.

Jupiter Research, a company that analyzes Internet use, concluded in a report published last year that online travel spending in the United States will grow from $54 billion to $91 billion by 2009. Airline executives are paying increasing attention to those numbers, realizing that they can save big bucks by persuading consumers to book on their sites.

But they’re walking a fine line as they try to sell more tickets directly while continuing to work with outside companies that bring in lots of business. According to PhoCusWright, a research firm that studies tourism trends, 39 percent of the airlines’ online ticket sales are made through third-party agencies such as Travelocity and Expedia.

“On the one hand, it’s clear that many airlines are trying to compete directly with third-party sites via their own branded Web sites,” said William J. McGee, a consultant on online travel for the nonprofit Consumer Reports WebWatch, who has conducted several studies of booking sites.

“At the same time, an awful lot of airline bookings continue to come through third-party sites.”

Keynote Systems Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that studies e-business performance and management, recently conducted a survey that asked 2,000 consumers to use and evaluate four third-party sites and 12 airline sites.

The conclusion: “Online travel agencies are outperforming airline Web sites in terms of customer experience and that is impacting their booking success.”

The study ranked Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity as the top three sites in terms of the best overall online experience for customers. Among airlines, Southwest was tops “because of its industry-leading price satisfaction and because it possessed the industry’s best online booking process.”

Bonny Brown, Keynote’s director of research and public services, said the study showed that airlines are not doing a good job convincing users that they’re offering the cheapest prices and the best availability. Third-party vendors “have built their sites better overall,” she said.

Furthermore, many consumers are not dissuaded by the $5-and-up fees that Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz tack on to each ticket.

“We do have customers telling us it’s too hard to find the same flights at the same price on the airline sites,” said Brown. “It’s easier to stay on the agency site and book.”

Or is it? We took a look at the Web sites of five leading airlines, reviewing their strengths and weaknesses:

United

Strengths: The simple search tool displayed on the first screen packs a lot of information into a small space. Searches can be done by price or schedule, one way or round trip; and electronic certificates and promotion codes can be entered easily. The screen also contains quick links to more search options, such as multi-city trips.

The more complex search screen permits searches by flexible dates, alternative airports, class of service and number of stops. Fares on other airlines in the 16-member Star Alliance can also be researched. In addition, you can book award travel, access frequent-flier accounts, get boarding passes, check flight status, and book vacation packages, cruises, car rentals and hotels.

Weaknesses: The site is showing its age. It uses an older fare-finding process that is clunkier than newer products and doesn’t always come up with the cheapest fares. The site also tries too hard. For example, the more complex search screen allows users to check a flight’s upgrade possibilities, but you then must choose from a dizzying collection of nine inscrutable categories, such as “miles-EMUHZVKWSTL.”

Also, the toll-free reservation phone number is not displayed on the first page, although it’s easy to find.

Southwest

Strengths: This discount airline pioneer led the way in developing an intuitive, simple-to-use airline Web site. Even a computer illiterate can figure out how to book a flight on its straightforward search screen.

Fare options are displayed in a grid so you can see on one screen which flights are offering the cheapest fares for a given day. The site also allows users to book a car and hotel immediately after booking a flight. You can print a boarding pass, check flight status and look up flight schedules. Deals and promotions are highlighted on the first screen. The new Ding! feature offers exclusive savings to its users, although it must be downloaded to your computer.

Weaknesses: A booking option is not displayed on the initial screen. The site has recently added cruise-booking capability, but the search tool is cumbersome and prices aren’t any cheaper than you’ll find through other cruise-only sites or directly from the cruise lines. The flip side of the grid system is that it can be frustrating to see how much less you could have paid for a sold-out cheap seat.

US Airways

Strengths: A lot of information is displayed on the initial screen. A simple booking option is immediately available, allowing you to search by date or price. When you click on the price option, the lowest existing fare between the two points is automatically displayed. You can select seats and easily apply upgrades before purchasing tickets. The first screen also has tools to search flight status and print boarding passes.

Promotional fares are easy to view. The site offers a useful and prominently displayed customer service section with video tutorials and easy-to-find phone numbers.

Weaknesses: The initial display, while full of information, is also busy and confusing. Links break down. You must sign in before purchasing tickets. The initial price quote does not include taxes. Booking by schedule sometimes malfunctions.

American

Strengths: This is one of the most ambitious airline sites, with an initial screen that is easy to decipher. A booking tool is immediately displayed. There are many ways of searching for fares – by price, schedule, flexible dates or award miles.

When searching by schedule, you can view available seats on each flight before you book, plus see whether meals are offered and the number of miles in each flight. Sign-in is not required before booking. Timetables can be downloaded to your computer or handheld.

The site contains fun contests; “Why You Fly,” for example, awarded a year of free travel to three winners. You can also book hotels, cars and vacation packages, and search all deals from a particular airport. Frequent-flier info is extensive.

Weaknesses: Depending on which search method you choose, you’ll come up with different flights and prices, even if you try to enter the same information. When searching by price, initial fare amount displayed does not include taxes.

Delta

Strengths: Site and initial screen are simple and straightforward, displaying an easy booking tool. You can search itineraries and flight status from the first screen. Promotions are clearly displayed.

The site includes such extras as a link to airport waiting times and charts of airplane types, seating plans and amenities. You can view seat availability before you book. Sign-in is not required. You also can book hotels, car rentals and vacation packages. Toll-free contact numbers are easy to find.

Weaknesses: The booking process does not allow you to pick and choose among flights; once you plug in particulars on the initial screen, it displays pre-chosen flight combos that may not be cheapest.

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