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Something Annoying in the Air: Airline Web Sites

By John Briley and Craig Stoltz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page E01


Airlines don't just want your patronage. They want your loyalty. For the past 20-plus years, their primary tool for encouraging consumer fidelity--and for discouraging shopping the competition for price or service--has been the frequent-flier program. But now, with the mainstream acceptance of the World Wide Web among air travelers, carriers have a second tool--the airline Web site--to draw you more snugly into their corporate embrace.

By offering a Web site that's genuinely useful and informative--as opposed to merely promotional--airlines can create a valuable link directly to their best customers. Yes, Web sites that offer online booking can save airlines money by reducing commissions paid to travel agents, fees paid to computerized central reservation systems and the high costs of live phone operators. But if an airline creates a Web site that meets and anticipates flier needs with a wide range of services and information, it has yet another tool to keep its best customers away from those annoying fare sales and stray deals others might offer. Perhaps more importantly, it can also keep them away from independent Web-based agencies, like Preview Travel and Expedia, that encourage users to shop the market for price.

In the accompanying chart, we compare the major carriers' sites according to how well they perform the crucial tasks of pricing and booking, distributing useful and necessary information and offering frequent-flier services. We also take up the important question of functional design--i.e., whether the site is fast and friendly or baffling and difficult to use.

As you might have already guessed, the industry that has given us such customer service innovations as the seven-peanut snack and the $75 ticket change fee still has a long way to go in adapting this new technology to meet customer needs. Some highlights:

  • Northwest wins the award for knowing who its audience is and what it wants, by offering best-of-breed Web-based services for frequent fliers. These services include not only online enrollment and an updated report of account information but, yes, the ability to book award travel on line.

  • United and American win the Enlightened Self-Interest award for permitting users of thier sites to price and book flights on other airlines, too--making them the only lines brave enough to suspend the fiction that one carrier can meet any travel request. Of course, both carriers have massive route structures, meaning they more than others can afford such apparent magnanimity. But it also suggests that United and American understand the value of providing inducements for users to make their sites their online "homes"--even at the expense of losing an occasional ticket sale. Between the two, United integrates other lines' options, including their lower-priced options, more fully and easily into its booking engine; American requires you to choose to view options from other carriers.

  • Two weeks of hard work on the ClueMaster for US Airways, whose ticket pricing and booking system requires you to select a flight from a series of choices whose prices you don't know until after you've made the selection--a stunning misreading of user needs that, given the fact that US Airways's system is unique in this regard, defies explanation. (This is partially--but only partially--compensated for by a feature that automatically disgorges lower-priced flight options later in the booking process.) By contrast, Southwest's pricing-and-booking tools remain at the top of the industry in terms of elegance and ease of use.

  • Surprisingly, there is very little creative bribery--incentives to use the site for booking or information rather than use the phone or an independent agent--going on. Southwest, as usual, leads the pack with a generous program that doubles rewards for online bookers, and provides them with instant access to Freedom Awards status. Among the majors, the best deal is found at American, which offers those who have not yet booked online a juicy 4,000-mile bonus for their first transaction. Previous online bookers earn just 1,000 bonus miles, which has become the industry's me-too standard. That's about about 1/25 of a meaningful flight reward for undertaking an online booking, suggesting that airlines aren't all that serious, at least yet, about encouraging customers to book online. A few lines are dabbling with special Web-only discounts that encourage users to return to their sites often. But this is a sensitive subject right now. When Delta added a $2 per segment surcharge to all flights not booked via its Web site, it withdrew its offer within two weeks following a wave of bad publicity and industry buzz. By offering incentives to book online, rather than punishments for not doing so, airlines are less likely to encounter trouble. We'll expect to see more of it, once the radioactivity lingering around Delta's error dissipates.

    A few user hints: Many of these Web pages are badly designed, but even the worst can be navigated successfully by finding the Site Map page, which normally planks out all the site's features, with live links, quite plainly. (Why home pages are not designed more like this from the outset is anybody's guess.) And don't expect much from the pages' promises about booking hotels, rental cars and entire packages. Many of the hotel/rental car links take you off-site or are more limited than what you'll find at independent electronic agents like Expedia, Preview Travel and Travelocity, or at various lodging sites. And the vacation areas are simply awful, a tangle of clicks that inevitably leave you reaching for the phone. The best and most honest of these pages would describe vacations available, with a range of times and prices, and give you a phone number to call. Alas, no airline operates such a page right now.

    So: Are any of these sites so good that they can attract new customers for the airline? Not a chance. The incentives aren't meaningful enough, and no airline has developed services so compelling that customers would abandon other carriers or even the independent agents. Northwest, American, United and Southwest at least give their current loyalists some good reasons to stick around.

    The others? Maybe they'll need to reach deeper into the airline repertoire if they really want to improve customer loyalty.

    Like, maybe, double the number of peanuts in each bag?

    Airlines want us to make their Web sites our e-travel homes. Partly they want to win our brand loyalty, and partly they want to keep us away from independent Web agents like Expedia and Preview Travel. But how much annoyance do we have to tolerate at these sites, and what sort of benefits do we enjoy? Here we survey the major carriers' Web offerings. All offer schedules, flight status, frequent-flier information and the ability to book flights on site; most throw in marginally valuable extras designed to keep us on the reservation. (All Web addresses are preceded by http://www.)


    Incentives to Use: 4,000 (!!) bonus miles for first-time e-buyers, 1,000 for others. Some Web-only fares.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Five clicks for precise itinerary, three for price. May request, book other carriers.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Online enrollment, account info (balance shown at log-in), redemption requests.
    Best Features: Bargain finder will get flight cheaper than one requested. AAdvantage number auto-recalled.
    Worst Annoyances: Site gave us frequent e-problems (on numerous visits): frozen screens, system busy messages.
    Notes: Fare finder reads high to low, creating first-screen sticker shock. Claims to tailor offers to user profile. Online specials posted sporadically (recent Paris r/t, $258) providing incentive to check back frequently.


    Incentives to Use: 1,000 bonus miles for e-buying international r/t, 500 for domestic r/t.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Three clicks to fare, but many fields need filling out, making it time-consuming.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Online enrollment, account info. Request retroactive mileage credit in one screen.
    Best Features: Navigation aided by pop-up explanations that appear with pass of mouse.
    Worst Annoyances: Poor design: Links are small; many look-alike screens, pop-ups. Log-in needed for online deals.
    Notes: OnePass screen carries eight-week forecast of routes with high award seat availability. Site won't accept e-mail without home address. OnePass number, PIN needed to reaccess OnePass screen.


    Incentives to Use: 500 bonus miles for e-buy r/t, 500 more for e-ticket. Weekly Web fares here only.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Two clicks to price, via bonus promo or "book online" link. Round-trip choice not automated.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Online enrollment, account info.
    Best Features: Weekly Web fares all have easy "reserve" button to book seats.
    Worst Annoyances: "Vacations" area a time-sucking vortex; "Deals" extracts excessive personal data.
    Notes: Pull-down menus, running text banner are irritating. No hiding from Deltaette; her mug is everywhere. Nice calendar. Poison residue of defunct plan to levy $2 fee on non-Web bookings dogs Delta's e-credibility.


    Incentives to Use: 1,000 bonus miles for every round-trip online purchase.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Three clicks to fares via "flight tools" (more via "reservations"). Price screen: good extra info.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Best of breed: Online award booking, plus account info, retro-active flight credit.
    Best Features: Flight status available without flight number; clean, complete page-one presentation.
    Worst Annoyances: First-timers book a fare, are sent to registration screen, then back to beginning to re-book.%!#
    Notes: Only site to offer low-graphics version for speedier access. Clean design, good navigation. Online award-travel booking good only for travel more than 14 days out.


    Incentives to Use: Best: Double Rapid Rewards, and instant Freedom Reward status, for e-booking.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Best: Two clicks to browse fares between cities, three to book. Elegant, simple.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Enroll via flight booking; no online account access or award booking.
    Best Features: Quick-hit low-fare scanner (cash register icon at Home Gate). Easy prices, booking.
    Worst Annoyances: Time to retire the dorky county fair Home Gate. Lack of "home" button requires back-clicking.
    Notes: Best support of price-shopping of any site. America Online 2.5 users can't use reservation system. Airport parking rates, short and long term, provided. Vacation booking is fairly well developed, though still taxing.


    Incentives to Use: 1,000 bonus miles for e-booking r/t. Online-only specials (e.g., $238 r/t to Madrid).
    Finding Flights/Fares: Six clicks to ticket price. TransWorld Access page requires registration (ID/PIN).
    Frequent-Flier Services: Online enrollment; can check account status with just Aviators number.
    Best Features: Best for quick access to current bargains via Hot Deals (weekend fares, other specials).
    Worst Annoyances: Baffling requirement to choose outbound and inbound legs, not just a round trip.
    Notes: Vacation page lists available packages, but no prices or online booking. Hot Deals are sometimes good, but some are expired.


    Incentives to Use: 500 miles/segment for online booking, 1,000 max per r/t. E-contests, juicy prizes.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Bulky: Six clicks to itin-erary; five to prices, cited "as low as," per leg; details next screen.
    Frequent-Flier Services: Mileage summary, requires PIN. No on-line enrollment. Good mile-value chart.
    Best Features: Booking engine offers options, and lower-priced choices, on other airlines.
    Worst Annoyances: Maddening vacations page -- it assigns you a firm, arbitrary return date that it never explains.
    Notes: Flaky, affected home page design redeemed only by great site map and rich features. Flight status requires flight numbers. Foreign language and phrase links. Lots of destination info, good car and hotel links.

    US Airways

    Incentives to Use: 1,000 bonus miles for booking r/t online.
    Finding Flights/Fares: Worst. Six clicks to price itinerary. Fare unknown until flight is selected -- arghh!
    Frequent-Flier Services: No online enrollment, account access or booking.
    Best Features: Fare request offers cheaper options. Check Fares offers three-click city-pair price scan.
    Worst Annoyances: Requiring flight selection to see fare reveals scary misunderstanding of user needs, attitudes.
    Notes: Fairly clean navigation. Hint: Save clicks with "check fares" link, not "book a flight." Flight status requires flight number. Some compelling special offers dump you into a sprawling page where offer is hard to find.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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