Airlines vie for online runway

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The Internet has become as important to airlines as demanding that passengers keep their tray tables in the locked position during takeoff.

Southwest Airlines is hoping a new campaign aimed solely at boosting traffic on its Web site will give it a lift, while United Airlines plans to launch a slew of Web sites targeted at nearly every kind of traveler.

Southwest's TV campaign, with three new spots breaking today, keeps with its humor-heavy creative that portrays uncomfortable everyday life situations juxtaposed with pleasant, worry-free vacations. The message: When the going gets tough, get going to to book a quick getaway. The campaign tweaks Southwest's "A symbol of freedom" tagline by using the catchphrase "A symbol of e-freedom."

"It's trying to promote the same Southwest feeling with an Internet message," said Steve Newton, art director at Southwest's agency, GSD&M, Austin, Texas.

With the launch, Southwest becomes the second airline with a campaign devoted solely to driving traffic to its Web site. Northwest Airlines launched its effort last fall.


Last month, Southwest revealed how important the Web has become by releasing figures showing 25% of its January passenger revenue came online, putting it on pace to post more than $1 billion in Web-driven revenue this year. Southwest was No. 1 in the percentage of tickets booked online in 1999, according to Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown; it's also the No. 1 airline online in unique visitors, according to Media Metrix.

The much-larger United -- whose VP of the e-commerce division, Scott Praven, expects the Web to generate up to 20% of its annual revenue by 2003 -- recently revamped its site ( It is also moving forward with plans to launch a host of new sites targeted at eight different customer segments, from high-end business travelers to penny-pinchers.

The airline already is involved with three other major carriers in a site, known only by its code name, T2, that will offer Internet-only fares. The site is expected to launch in the next 90 days backed by an estimated $50 million campaign from TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York. The airline also has a joint venture with, a stake in and is working with to develop a site that will offer video clips of vacation hot spots.

United's e-commerce division, just formed in January, will be spun off into a wholly owned subsidiary in the coming quarter. A United spokesman said it could also be part of an IPO.


Airlines salivate over the Web because Internet ticket sales save a carrier from paying travel agent commissions.

Jupiter Communications estimates $3.2 billion worth of tickets were sold online in 1999, making it the second-largest e-commerce category behind PCs. That figure is expected to jump to $9.8 billion for 2003.

"A lot more people are looking than booking today, but that's changing," said Madigan Pratt, exec-VP of Boston-based Trinity Communications and vice chairman of the Association of Travel Marketing Executives.

"The advantage of a television campaign is it's great at building a brand and providing an immersive experience, but it's not great at providing a great deal of information in a short period of time," said Marissa Gluck, an analyst with Jupiter. "The Web's great for that."

Mr. Knapp is an associate editor at Crain's Chicago Business.

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