Online Travel Companies Edge Airline Web Sites

Online travel agencies outperform airline Web sites in customer experience, creating a material advantage in their online booking success rates, according to a study by Keynote Systems.

The study was based on an evaluation of 2,000 customer reactions to 16 leading travel and airline sites, ranking them in order of consumer experience based on over 250 metrics. In addition to opinion-based data, Keynote also collected qualitative and behavioral data as customers performed tasks at each site.

Company Web sites tracked by the study included: The AirTran, Alaska Air, American West, American Airlines, CheapTickets, Continental, Delta, Expedia, Frontier, JetBlue, Northwest, Orbitz, Southwest, Travelocity, United Airlines, and US Airways.

“Greater selection is a major inherent advantage for online travel agencies,” said Dr. Bonny Brown, Keynote’s director of research and public services. “But online agencies are also creating a better overall online experience for customers and this is a significant contributor to the success of these sites over airline sites. The airlines are just not fully capitalizing on their loyalty programs and direct ties to the customer.”

Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity, in that order, were the top three ranked sites in the study, scoring significantly higher in terms of customer experience and conversion than any airline site with the exception of Southwest.

Budget carriers Southwest and JetBlue outranked market-leading airlines in terms of both customer experience and conversion. Southwest was the only airline site to drive bookings as effectively as online agency sites, primarily due to price satisfaction and the most popular online booking process measured in the study, Brown added.

“Airlines such as Southwest and JetBlue have demonstrated that airlines can successfully compete against online travel agencies,” Brown said. “Those sites clearly take great strides to produce a positive online experience, and it appears to be paying off for them.”

Other findings include:

  • 70 percent of consumers with online access book air travel online, versus 25 percent who call an airline service line.
  • 81 percent of respondents said price is the single most important factor in their decision on which site to book a flight.
  • Ease-of-use was the second most important factor, identified by 50 percent of respondents.

The findings gel with those of a similar study released by the Customer Respect Group in February. That report also ranked Orbitz, Travelocity, and Expedia the top three slots in the online travel industry in terms of consumer experience. The study found different results for the leading airline sites, ranking US Airways, British Airways, Air Canada, Independence Air, and Northwest Airlines in the top positions.

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