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 southwest.com 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.

WEB SALES AT $1 BILLION PACE

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 (ual.com). 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 Buy.com, a stake in Priceline.com and is working with On2.com 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.

SKIPPING COMMISSIONS

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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