The Aug. 2 Business Class column incorrectly described a new upgrade program offered by United Airlines. For an annual fee of $300, United will allow passengers to upgrade to Economy Plus seating, not business class, on all domestic and international flights. (Published 8/5/2005)

After ditching meals and blankets to save money, airlines have come upon another way to cut costs and actually improve one area of service.

In the past few days, two major carriers -- Delta Air Lines and AirTran Airways -- have unveiled new Web sites aimed at making business travelers' online experience easier. By attracting more travelers to their Web sites to book flights, airlines are able to cut the costs of ticket distribution. It costs the carriers more to sell their tickets through their own reservation agents or through travel agents than it does to sell them on their Web sites.

America West Airlines began testing its new Web site in June. United Airlines said it plans to unveil a more user-friendly site in the next 12 to 18 months.

US Airways executives acknowledged last summer that the airline's Web site was antiquated and announced plans to unveil a new site this year. US Airways spokeswoman Amy Kudwa said the new design was scheduled for launch in December but has been postponed because of the carrier's plan to merge with America West.

Travelers using the new Web sites can perform some of the same actions available to reservation agents. For example, Delta's site allows travelers to change their flight itinerary and check flights on many of its code-share partners. Passengers who book a flight on Delta's Web site now have 24 hours to cancel the reservation -- something that used to be limited to tickets purchased through a reservation agent.

"We heard from a lot of our customers who said they wanted the same flexibility and same policies across the [distribution] channels," said Carolyn Rak, Delta's managing director of online sales and service.

Delta's Web site redesign is its first in five years. The airline sells about 24 percent of its tickets online, up from 18 percent last year. Delta, which lost $382 million in the second quarter, hopes to increase Web site sales to 28 percent by the end of the year, Rak said.

AirTran sells nearly 50 percent of its tickets through its Web site. The airline said its customers wanted two things: ease and speed. "Our customers told us they wanted it easier to be able to check in for a flight and book a flight online," said AirTran spokeswoman Judy Graham-Weaver.

The Web site redesigns are also aimed at steering traffic away from general travel sites such as Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity.

Travel sales generate the second-highest revenue on the Internet after pornography. Airline tickets are expected to bring in $38.5 billion in sales this year, said Henry H. Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research. Harteveldt estimates that if Delta can get 50,000 travelers to buy tickets online instead of through a reservation agent, the airline could save about $350,000. He estimates Delta spent about $2 million on its Web site redesign.

"The airlines have lost their pricing power. Without a good Web site, they have no chance of economically surviving," Harteveldt said.

Upgrade for a Fee: For an annual fee of $300, United Airlines will allow passengers to upgrade to business class on all domestic and international flights. For $700, passengers can get access to business class and one-year unlimited usage of United's Red Carpet airport clubs. The program, called Economy Plus Access, begins tomorrow.

Admitted "Poor Taste": In a speech before about 200 airline industry officials on Friday at the Capital Hilton, Colin Stuart, Airbus's vice president of marketing, surprised -- and offended -- several of the attendees when he compared the new Airbus A380 super-jumbo jet to his wife.

"Larger bellies, greater noise reductions, increased payload -- it actually reminds me of my wife," he joked.

Stuart also made reference to his wife in discussing the many late design suggestions airline executives put forward for the 555-seat aircraft. "It was like my wife when she was having our new kitchen designed. Once it was completed, she wanted something more," he said. "They always want more."

During the question-and-answer period, a female reporter asked about the impact of the new jumbo jet on airfares, especially in the age of high fuel prices. "Good to see you're not home in the kitchen," Stuart quipped before answering.

Said one attendee: "He made Larry Summers look politically correct."

Yesterday, Stuart called BizClass to issue an apology. "It was in very poor taste, and I would like to withdraw the statements. I didn't think them through," he said.

AirTran's site redesign is targeted at business travelers. The airline said its customers wanted ease and speed.