Airline websites under threat from robots

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Online agents and other third-party companies are increasingly using robots to scrape airline websites. Should airlines pull their plug?

as carriers look to improve the quality of their online traffic, some are turning to new technology to prevent robots from "scraping" their websites and extracting data to display on other websites.

IT analysts and suppliers say airlines have seen their conversion rates - the number of fare queries that result in a booking - plummet as price comparison shopping sites and online travel agents have risen. Datalex chief executive Cormac Whelan says some airlines now receive 150 to 200 searches on average per booking, although carriers with strong brands have conversion rates closer to 40 or 50 to 1. SITA director of internet and integration solutions Michael Cunningham says some of his customers have conversion rates as low as 200 or even 300 to 1.

Travel Technology Research partner Ian Tunnacliffe says the dramatic reduction in conversion rates has resulted in several carriers "getting clobbered" by back office charges from their reservation system providers. Some carriers are charged by their suppliers per search rather than per booking. Many carriers have a certain number of free queries as part of their package but Tunnacliffe says he has seen this limit significantly exceeded several times.

Handling the volumes

robot hand"If you promote your online presence you can go from 1,000 to one million hits in one day," Tunnacliffe says. In response several carriers have established with the help of their IT suppliers "caches" in front of their reservation system to handle fare queries. The caches have all the fare data and are used to respond to all searches. The back end reservation system is only brought into the picture when a booking is made.

"If you don't have an effective cache any query can hit the back end of the system and get an excess transaction charge of about 2¢. It can mount up very quickly. The industry has really struggled with this." Adds Whelan: "It's definitely a concern because it drives up infrastructure costs."

Amadeus, Datalex and Navitaire say they all now offer caches or similar "beta pricing" technology as part of their e-commerce offering. They also offer technology which can entirely block specific companies from accessing airline websites or eliminate robots altogether by adding a page in the booking process that asks consumers to read back an image.

But airlines have to be careful who they block out. While online agents that use robots to scrape websites often have lower conversion rates than individual consumers, most of these agents also generate revenues.

Carriers such as Ryanair and Southwest do not think these revenues are worth banking, pointing out passengers who book on other websites cannot be sold ancillary products. Airlines also cannot notify these passengers of flight schedule changes because many of the agents fail to forward details to the carriers.

"If we could stop all agencies overnight we would. The problem is we can't," says Ryanair. But it adds a "new catchment system" it is now introducing with Navitaire "should get a lot of them".

Southwest Airlines director of marketing communication Anne Murray adds: "Once we are aware of them we take action against them. We take a very aggressive stance. It is the downside of doing business on the internet."

But carriers with less powerful brands are less likely to block online agents. Clickair chief executive Alex Cruz says 8-9% of the carrier's bookings come from robots, which is simply too much to turn away. "Ryanair can entirely write them off. I can't," Cruz says. "It's a love-hate relationship. I'm losing upsell opportunities and I hate that."

Monarch e-commerce manager Ian Chambers says the carrier has also elected not to kick robots out, even though they "strain" the system. "A booking is a booking," he says.

Aer Lingus corporate affairs director Enda Corneille adds: "We don't mind them. They don't slow us down. They are minimal. They account for less than 5% of our bookings."

The Airline Business/SITA Airline IT Trends Survey has more on the global online sales story http://www.flightglobal.com/airlineit