Users of the Internet's World Wide Web spend around $40 billion a year on air travel, equivalent to the annual passenger revenues of the top three US majors combined, according to San Diego-based market research company CIC Research. Moreover, the majority are interested in using the Web to get travel information and book tickets.

CIC obtained the $40 billion figure by extrapolating on data from 10,000 Internet users who have responded to its travel survey during the last six months. 'We are confident that this estimate is realistic, because the demographics of our survey respondents are comparable with those of wider Internet surveys. However, even if it is out by a factor of two or three, the Internet still represents a massive market for the airlines,' says CIC's Addison Schonland. 'Clearly, if you're trying to sell travel you must be on the Internet.'

This survey represents the first attempt to quantify the potential use of the Internet as an airline marketing tool. Many carriers have established sites on the World Wide Web because they believe it offers a low-cost, efficient method of reaching a wide audience, and because Web users are thought likely to have a higher than average propensity to travel.

Among the respondents to CIC's survey, 81 per cent have taken at least one domestic pleasure trip in the last year and 66 per cent took a domestic business trip, while 50 per cent travelled internationally for pleasure and 33 per cent did so on business. The average number of return journeys taken over the last year varies from 3.4 per person for domestic business to 1.0 for international pleasure.

Over 44 per cent of respondents say they are very interested in using the Internet for booking their travel, and another 40.5 per cent have registered some interest. Nearly three quarters think that Internet information has at least some importance in making travel choices.

Delta is the Internet traveller's favourite airline, chosen by 11.9 per cent of respondents. It is followed by British Airways (10 per cent), United (9.8 per cent) and American (9.3 per cent). However, the ratings of these top four airlines are so close that their positions change from month to month.

American has the Web surfers' top frequent flyer programme; some 32.6 per cent of respondents are members of AAdvantage, followed by United's and Delta's programmes with 27 per cent.

Opinions on airports are highly polarised. While 27.9 per cent of respondents place Chicago/O'Hare among their favourites, 53.7 per cent pass negative judgements on it. Other favoured airports are Atlanta, San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth. New York/JFK receives the most criticism, with unfavourable ratings from 67.6 per cent of respondents.

The results reflect the preponderance of North Americans among Internet users; 85 per cent of respondents live in the US and 5.1 per cent in Canada, with the UK coming a distant third at 1.5 per cent.

To obtain the $40 billion figure, CIC combined its survey responses with industry data on average air fares. It assumed that 13.5 million people, or half of Internet users, have access to the World Wide Web. Given the massive growth in the Web user base, that figure is probably a massive understatement.

Richard Whitaker

Source: Airline Business