Airlines have known for a long time that flyers come to their website just to browse or do a little price shopping. Then they go someplace else to buy because they figure Travelocity or Orbitz or Expedia or someone else can give them the best price. Perhaps the carriers’ ‘best-price’ guarantees, promising that no middleman can have a lower price than the airline’s own website, just haven’t worked as well as one would have thought, but people are still shopping around and away from airline sites more than the carriers would like. So some airlines are changing the way they display fares to convert browsers into buyers. American, the largest airline in the States, has revamped its website, aa.com, so that people won’t have to make choice between either searching for flights based on price alone or searching for flights by departure time. Dan Garton, American’s executive vice president, says, “In reality, most people want both”. The new aa.com display shows viewers all airfares offered for a particular American route on a selected day. People will be able to see the different types of fares and meaningfully descriptive names such as ‘Economy Super Saver’ or ‘First Flexible’, rather than the corresponding fare-codes (‘YKXE7′) that make sense only to airline reservations people, travel agents or, in some cases, to truly obsessive frequent flyers who track these things.
The site will include a comparison grid that details what you get or don’t get with each type or class of fare, explaining if a specific fare type is refundable or not and so on. This is very much like the Air Canada approach in which ‘attributes’ of each fare category are explained; the difference is that with Air Canada, you buy or build your fare by attribute, but at aa.com, you have to choose a category rather than an attribute or feature. The aa.com grid also shows would-be flyers the trade-off they’d have to make to get the schedule or price they want. For example, if a traveller doesn’t want to fly at zero-dark-30 a.m., this person can see how much more it would cost to fly a few hours later. The new aa.com features, which go live later this summer, also let people choose each travel leg separately. That way, they can make a booking based on an attractive price for the outgoing flight and based on schedule for the return.
Some have observed that the new grid resembles the Southwest.com website, a travellers’ favourite. Similarly, United Airlines breaks out fare options at the top of flight-search results. Rob Friedman, aa.com’s managing director, said it was developed through focus groups and that the airline certainly paid attention to what other carriers were doing. About 1.2 million different viewers log on the site daily and about nine of 10 users belong to American’s top tiers, he said. Garton told reporters during a preview demonstration that aa.com generates more than a fifth of American’s sales, but would not be more specific. The airline’s total passenger revenue last year was almost $18 billion. So, do the maths and you’ll the logic of maker buyers out of browsers.