Travel Vendors Push to Placate Frustrated Flyers

In what may become known as the summer of the delayed flight, travel vendors are leveraging online and wireless technologies to pacify an otherwise furious public.

Online travel agency Expedia in Bellevue, Washington., earlier this month started dedicating an entire section of its Web site to tracking delayed flights and giving travelers tips on how to survive the delays.

"It became clear it was a critical-mass situation and we had to do something for our customers," said Expedia Managing Editor Mary Brisson.

Expedia offers real-time flight status updates by connecting to the Federal Aviation Administration's weather information network and computer reservations giant Worldspan L.P. in Atlanta. In addition, Expedia built a search engine to track the on-time performance of various airlines along specific routes.

The information is also available to Expedia's customers via Web phones and personal digital assistants.

Competitors like Fort Worth, Texas-based Travelocity.com LP and Englewood, Colo.-based Trip.com Inc. have launched similar programs. Airlines also have made attempts to push information out to frustrated travelers with programs such as paging services that notify flyers of changes in flight status.

"The thing that drives people nuts is their utter helplessness," said Kate Rice, an analyst at online travel research firm PhoCusWright Inc. in Sherman, Conn.

Heidi Kim, an online travel analyst at New York-based Jupiter Communications Inc., agreed, noting that many travelers develop "a feeling of distrust that either they're not getting the full information or that they're being lied to." Both analysts see the proactive delay information as a method of placating angry travelers with technology and building a bond with the company that supplies the information.

"Ultimately, they want to own that customer relationship and this is one method to do that," Kim said. "It's about managing the customers' expectations." The need for such information has never been greater, with bizarre weather patterns, an aging air traffic control system and a labor dispute between Chicago-based United Air Lines Inc. and its pilots that has forced thousands of flight cancellations.

"It's not hyperbole to say it's been the summer from hell for business travelers," said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Lafayette Hill, Pa.-based Business Travel Coalition, which lobbies for corporate travelers.

Yet Mitchell says he sees a motive beyond customer service for building the IT infrastructures that fold passengers into the information loop.

"More than mollifying travelers, they're trying to ward off Congressional legislation," he said.

Mitchell argued that a passenger's bill of rights, a version of which was debated early last year, would hold airlines accountable for on-time performance and give passengers more leverage in dealing with airline ticket sellers.

"To a degree, all of these new initiatives are ways of showing the government that they're doing something about customer service," Mitchell said.

Brisson said she believes that as people become more aware of the delays, they will become less tolerant.

"We recognize there's a chronic situation here," she said. "But there's nothing we can do to control airspace. The best we can offer is up-to-date information, which hopefully gives our customers better options."

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