Do airlines even care about their websites?

Airlines may be losing business due to poor customer experience on their websites.
Airlines may be losing business due to poor customer experience on their websites. Illustration: Bloomberg

I wonder if the airlines are even looking at the fallout from the poor customer experience of their booking websites, which, if not actually prevalent, are way too common, according to the feedback received by this blog – and state consumer affairs offices – in the past four years.

The editors of industry website Traveltrends.biz zeroed in on problems with web bookings that were identified in a recent survey by “engagement solutions” consultant, LivePerson.com.

Though the survey was not specifically addressed to the travel industry, travel bookings have become one of the primary uses for the web in the past decade.

And Traveltrends.biz isolates what it sees as the major problems with travel and airline booking processes as they are currently structured.

“New research shows the major reason people abandon online purchases is unexpected costs,” Traveltrends says. That’s a significant problem in airline bookings when a major function of airline websites is to entice customers to pay more than they expected to for ancillary services.

“That's closely followed by a lack of information about a product/service or delivery, navigation problems, while difficulty in getting help is also a significant factor.”

The last finding also describes the modern plague: lack of customer service.

Most retailers, including airlines, have seen the web as a technology that can increase sales while reducing or eliminating interaction with customers.

But you don’t need a business degree to figure out that any technology that destroys or damages customer relationships is going to be disastrous in the long term, even if the short-term dollar savings are hard to resist.

Yet many companies, in seeking to preserve customer relationships, are attempting to do so through automation.

Price is king, the saying goes, especially in the airline business, but, at the same time, online travel sellers like Webjet have found a willing market among people who are happy to pay large fees – up to around $50 for a simple air fare purchase in return for certain guarantees and, dare we say, service.

Meanwhile, whether they like it or not, air travellers are succumbing to paying extra for everything from bags that used to be part of the ticket to preferred seating, which is especially big in North America.

In the new world of airlines – full-service and low-cost alike – the price of the ticket barely ends covering costs while the so-called ancillary revenue is the profit.

In June, the foremost US expert on ancillary revenue, IdeaWorksCompany, said in a report that ancillary revenue for 116 airlines around the world had reached $US27.1 billion in 2012 and had doubled since 2009.

“Statistics help tell the ancillary revenue story and every year key numbers are getting larger,” says the president of IdeaWorksCompany, Jay Sorensen.

“The most aggressive airlines easily have more than 20 per cent of their revenue produced by a la carte fees. The best performers realize more than $30 per passenger from ancillary revenue.

“This can be almost totally generated through optional extras as with (Florida-based low-cost-carrier) Spirit and AirAsia X, or largely achieved through the co-branded credit cards held by consumers at Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.

“Whatever the source, it is revenue desperately needed by airlines during troubled economic times.”

But what will the long-term cost be if, as the LivePerson.com survey suggests, ambushing customers with extra costs is a major turnoff and results in lost sales?

I think there’s a Holy Grail yet to be developed in airline e-commerce that avoids cost ambushes and provides customer service that isn’t primarily designed to avoid giving customers what they want or at least limiting customer interaction.

There’s got to be a better way than the current blueprint, which has made airlines one of the primary sources of consumer complaints, especially in Australia.

Have you become a user of airline extras, even though you used to get the same “services” free? When you book travel, who do you find has the best website? What are your main gripes with the travel booking process? Or do you just leave it to an agent? Does your agent charge you an upfront fee?

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