• March 4, 2005
  • By Coreen Bailor, (former) Associate Editor, CRM Magazine

Online Travel Agencies Surpass Airline Web Sites

For sectors like the airline industry, where online customer transactions account for a significant chunk of revenue, delivering a high-flying customer experience is essential. According to a study from Keynote Systems, however, airline Web sites have some work to do. In fact, study results reveal the level of customer experience that online travel agencies are delivering is soaring past their airline Web-site rivals. The "Keynote Customer Experience Rankings for the Airline Industry" bases its findings on research the firm conducted with 2,000 customers who evaluated the Web sites of 16 industry players comprising four travel agencies and 12 airlines: AirTran, Alaska Air, America West, American Airlines, CheapTickets, Continental, Delta, Expedia, Frontier, JetBlue, Northwest, Orbitz, Southwest, Travelocity, United, and US Airways. The rankings are an overall measure of online customer experience based on more than 250 metrics. According to the study, Expedia earned the top slot for supplying the best overall online customer experience, followed by Orbitz and Travelocity. Part of the travel agencies' success may hinge on their ability to provide a larger flight selection with its collection of carriers and prices, while making their sites easier to use. "You put those two things together, price and selection, and you can really understand why they are pulling away from the airline sites," says Lance Jones, senior manager of syndicated business at Keynote Systems. "We also see that even though [online travel agencies] have so much selection, they're able to provide a much better customer experience in doing things like making it easier for consumers to find a flight." The same sites also placed among the top three on the Keynote Conversion Impact Index, with Expedia topping the list, while Orbitz and Travelocity swapped positions, suggesting a direct correlation between customer experience performance and the conversion of site visitors into customers. Online travel agencies fared well in other metrics, including customer support with CheapTickets receiving top honors, while Orbitz earned the top position on the Customer Satisfaction Index and Brand Impact Index, in addition to being viewed as the best of the Web in the airline industry in flight availability. But the scale is not completely lopsided, as low-cost airlines Southwest and JetBlue were ranked best among airline sites in terms of customer experience. Southwest also placed first in ease-of-booking and second in price satisfaction. Additionally, United Airlines had a strong showing in the design and organization category. "We see airline sites doing well in selected areas, but when you take a look at the entire experience, combining that with pricing and selection, that's where you start to see online travel agencies taking off," Jones says. Still, Jones sees no reason why these airline sites can't compete on the same level with online travel agencies, adding that online agencies' success is evident in many of Keynote's other travel studies: "They just need to improve their online experience and highlight the things that they bring to the table. Maybe they're not capitalizing on their loyalty ties...and some of these things that are not being utilized maybe as effectively as they could [may] bring some of those other airline sites into the top tier." Related articles: Capturing Loyalty in Business Travel
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