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SHOOTOUT: Site's extras clinch win for Swissair over Air France

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What kind of Web site helps an airline's business reach new altitudes? Swissair's site is rich with graphics and full of features like online booking and hints for tourists. In contrast, the Air France site looks elegantly spartan and offers only a few features, such as a schedule of upcoming flights.

For this month's Shoot-out, we sent 100 WebScore panelists to these sites to find out which approach is more successful. We asked our panelists to imagine that they were traveling to a trade show in Geneva, but wanted to arrive a few days early to visit another city. They were given a choice of flying from New York to Paris on Air France or to Zurich on Swissair. To make their plans, we asked them to compare the two airlines' sites and flight schedules.

Swissair features win panelists

Slightly more than half of our respondents -- 57% -- felt that Swissair has a better site than Air France. The preference for Swissair increased to 69% when we asked which site has better features apart from the flight schedule.

However, 62% thought the Air France site makes it easier to locate upcoming flights. Air France also edged Swissair on the airline people would fly if they only looked at the two companies' flight schedules.

In contrast, 56% said they would select Swissair based on the site rather than the schedule.

Most of those who thought Swissair has the better overall site mentioned its attractive design and large volume of information. "Swissair is much more pleasing to the eye," wrote one respondent. "The icons and colors really make the site great."

Others liked that the Swissair site offers many features the Air France site does not, such as fare specials, a board showing current arrivals and departures, hotel and tourist information, and online booking.

"I can't believe Air France doesn't offer online booking," asserted one Web commerce-oriented panelist. "That is a big deciding factor for me."

Simplicity and ease

In contrast, the panelists who preferred the Air France site liked its simplicity and ease of use.

"I felt the overall design was cleaner, simple to read, good graphics," wrote one.

While a few of those who preferred the Swissair site mentioned ease of use, 47% of those who liked the Air France site called it easy to use or easy to understand.

Those who preferred the Air France site overall were a minority, but a considerable majority felt this site makes it easier to locate flight information. While the number of screens required to access schedules was actually the same for both sites, many had less trouble spotting the link to the flight schedules on Air France's uncluttered home page.

Said one: "I really like the Swissair graphics . . . but what was important to me was finding flight schedules. On Air France, it was quick and simple."

In fact, at least three panelists never found the Swissair schedules. This demonstrates a paradoxical problem many Web sites face: As more features are added to a site, it can actually become less usable unless it has been carefully designed.

By a 53% to 47% margin, our panelists preferred Air France's roster of flights. Although most did not offer an explanation of their choice, it seems likely that many respondents found Swissair's schedule unnecessarily long. (While Air France listed four flights from New York to Paris on the specified day, Swissair offered 18 to Zurich.)

Concorde crossing

Two people liked the idea of crossing the Atlantic on the Concorde (which Swissair does not offer), and another pointed out that Air France's flights to Paris are all non-stop, while most of Swissair's flights to Zurich include a stop.

Although they were supposed to ignore this consideration, a few respondents also chose Air France because they would rather see Paris than Zurich.

Finally, the Swissair site seems to be the more effective of the two at convincing surfers of the quality of the underlying airline. Eleven people said the site gave them a better impression of Swissair as a company, mostly by making the airline seem friendlier or more organized.

Only two respondents said they were more impressed with Air France as a result of viewing its site.

One panelist who preferred the Air France site wrote, apparently without irony: "I got the impression that maybe Air France doesn't spend quite as much time on their Web site. So maybe they can spend more time making sure their planes get to where they are going."

Matthew Weinshenker is online services analyst for New York-based CLT Research Associates, which offers the WebScore service..

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