Airlines push self-service on Web

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Tim Mapes calls it one-stop shopping.

"We're just like Super Wal-Mart," said Mr. Mapes, the VP-marketing for Song Airlines. "When people go to flysong.com, they can book a ticket, pick a seat, print out a boarding pass and even pre-order a meal."

More and more, airlines are driving potential customers to their respective Web sites, and they're doing so by incorporating an online message into all facets of their advertising. Song has done it via billboards from Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York. Song's parent, Delta Air Lines, last year introduced a print and TV campaign from former agency Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, advising customers to avoid lines by going to its Web site and airport kiosks. United has also done print and TV executions to drive customers to united.com.

"This has been a general push in all of our advertising, to get people to the Web site," said Joyce Roggers, senior VP-marketing for Southwest. "And once they're there, we want to make it easy. We truly believe in being a low-fare carrier every day, every month, every year. We're not trying to hide where our low fares are and when they're available. We don't want to make people hunt and peck."

Southwest, when it entered the Philadelphia market, used direct mail, radio and online to get consumers to its Web site. It not only bought print ads and air time, but it posted banner ads on other Web sites to help drive traffic to southwest.com. Omnicom Group's GSD&M, Austin,Tx., handles.

Others are using the Web's simplest platform. According to a survey by the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 35 million online travelers have signed up with an airline Web site or online travel service to receive e-mail offers and promotions. According to the same survey, 10 million people said they were influenced last year by an e-mail promotion to take a trip they otherwise would not have taken.

REDUCED STAFF

The airline industry is doing such a good job of driving customers to its Web sites, some have even closed city ticket offices and reduced airport staff.

"When they drive you to their Web site for an automated check-in, they're not only saving you time in line at the airport, they're getting you accustomed to their Web site," said Terry Trippler, an airline-industry expert who runs the online travel service cheapseats.com. "It's a win-win situation for the airlines. It's very, very good marketing."

Why the big push? Well, revenue, of course, particularly from business travelers. According to the sixth annual Travel Trends study by PhoCusWright, Sherman, Conn., 23% of all corporate travel bookings in the U.S. last year were made online. That came to $18.8 billion in airline, hotel and car-rental bookings.

The study also estimated that online bookings will almost double to $36.5 billion in 2006.

Phenomenon? Hardly. Many companies are instituting travel policies that have their employees book online to find the best fares and avoid paying fees to travel agencies. McDonald's Corp., for instance, last year moved its travel planning for North American employees from Carlson Wagonlit, the nationwide corporate-travel company, to the online service Orbitz.

Certainly, the success of low-fare startup JetBlue helped push the bigger carriers to this point. From its inception in early 2000, JetBlue drove customers to its Web site with its advertising. Within two years, 68% of its bookings were online.

Today, that number is 75%. By contrast, about 55% of Southwest's bookings are online and an average 22% of reservations for the major carriers are made online.

`THE GREAT LIBERALIZER'

"The Web is the great liberalizer. People can do it from their desk and that makes everybody equal," said Richard Ford, executive creative director for brand consultancy Landor, New York. Landor has worked with Delta for the last 10 years to create a synergy in its advertising, in everything from corporate branding to TV spots to having the same look on its Web site and airport kiosks.

"You can't make everything so rigid," Mr. Ford said, "but everything should have the same recognizable elements. The frequency with which Delta visits design and functionality is increasing. They see it as a hugely important medium."

Mr. Mapes agreed, saying that form and function go hand in hand with the advertising. For instance, when Delta executives sat down to name the new low-fare carrier last year, simple and memorable were the buzzwords. From there, Song carried over to the Web name flysong.com.

"Frankly," Mr. Mapes said with a laugh, "we were looking for the shortest, simplest English-language word that wasn't a porn site."

Moreover, the Web sites have to be the equal of the online travel services, such as Orbitz. To that end, both Song and Southwest, for instance, have instituted features on their respective sites that offer alternative fares. On flysong.com, a prompt will ask a customer if he can fly on a Tuesday, instead of Monday, or at 5 p.m. instead of 11 a.m., if he's looking for a cheaper fare.

On southwest.com, the Southwest Shortcut does much the same. The Web site includes a calendar on the booking page that gives a color diagram for when certain fares and flights are available as an alternative to what a customer originally punched in.

That doesn't necessarily mean the airlines have abandoned the travel sites. Delta, Song, United and many others continue to have their fares posted on Orbitz, Travelocity and Expedia, among others.

"It's the equivalent of shelf space," Mr. Mapes said. "It gives us a breadth of options."

Said Mr. Trippler: "The airline industry has done a 180. Now the flights are horrible, the seats are crammed and the food is bad. But the ground experience of being able to buy a flight and print a boarding pass from your bedroom is getting better by the day."

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