Ai Editorial: Assessing the role of Internet booking engines in crafting digital experiences

First Published on 29th March, 2018

Ai Editorial: Airlines should rely on the booking engine to do its job - connect users with flights and allow them to book it - but not expect a booking engine to build, develop, and maintain relationships with their customers, asserts Travelaer’s Mike Slone. He shared 7 key facets related to Internet booking engines with Ai’s Ritesh Gupta.


Airlines need to be in control of designing and setting up of the booking flow that they want, in sync with the digital retailing experience expected by today’s passengers. Besides being in command of the Internet booking engine, e-commerce specialists also need to factor other aspects, for instance, connecting user experience (UX) with conversion rate optimization.

But are airlines excelling in this arena?

Not really, asserts Mike Slone, Chief Experience Officer, Travelaer.

As a specialist in this arena, Slone points out that the role of travel technology companies isn’t just about selling an IBE.

“Airlines need to control the user interface and functionality on their digital experiences and often to do this they will need full control of their IBE, which most do not have today. The future of travel tech companies like Travelaer, should be to assist and enable an airline digital team with their IBE, not provide them with an IBE. There is a difference. At Travelaer, we are producing tools in a modular format via API or UI (user interface) that will enhance the user experience for an airline, but we don’t always expect them to adopt our entire IBE,” said Slone.

Slone spoke in detail about IBEs, why do they lag behind when compared with other industries and what airlines need to focus on:

1.     Being a laggard: Airlines tend to be followers. They tend to introduce a new functionality if large tech companies provide it and other airlines have adopted it. This cycle of large tech providers not prioritizing investments in their respective booking engines and airline dependency on these providers has caused stagnation and lack of innovation in airline digital experiences. “A very clear indicator of the lack of innovation or evolution with IBE’s is to look at the booking or search widget found on every airline site. If you go back to 1995 and look at the first airline IBE, Alaska Airlines, you will see very little evolution 28 years later. Airlines are still using the same version of HTML form elements that were found on that site, still today. The form elements may visually look a little better today, but if you compare searching and booking a flight from 1995 to 2018, the structure and functionality is still the same. You’ve seen some new thinking and small innovations on sites like Virgin America, but the main tool for searching flights is 99% the same as it was in the late 90’s,” explained Slone.  He added that when one compares the user experiences of an online travel agent site like Expedia to an airline site, the features and functionality found on the OTA sites and apps are often several years ahead of the airlines, if not beyond that. “For example, take responsive user interfaces and mobile applications- OTA’s and meta-search sites like Expedia and Skyscanner have had a responsive user interface for years, whereas most airlines today still don’t have responsive user interfaces, much less iOS and Android mobile applications,” he said.  

2.     Lack of effort of to improve the UX: Another example where airlines are not evolving fast enough is how they merchandise and price their products.  From user research and testing, Travelaer has found that customers across the world don’t respond well to the multiple fare class grid (often 6+ options) presented on most airlines sites. “Customers don’t know the difference between Eco Light, Eco Normal, Eco Flex, Premium, Premium Flex, Business, and Business Flex, etc. This presentation of airline products is not user friendly and when evaluating the amount of time customers spend on an airline website, the majority of their time is spent trying to figure out what the benefits or lack of benefits that each fare class contains,” said Slone. “This user experience nightmare is a byproduct of the pricing and IBE technology that is available to airlines today, again often coming from the larger travel tech companies.”   

3.     Change is must: Unfortunately, the words “evolution’ and “innovation” typically don’t belong in the same sentence with airline-specific Internet booking engines, says Slone. He pointed out that if there is any innovation or evolution happening with IBE’s it is often on top or around them.  “A big shift you are seeing now is that IBE providers are investing in API’s that allow airlines or partnering software developers to build their own user interfaces or applications on top of their outdated IBE’s. This is a big shift from the past where the tech providers wanted to control the user interface of airlines. But, this change with the tech providers is not because they want to be innovative, but rather airlines have complained for 10+ years that they don’t have the flexibility they need in the user interface to provide a quality user experience. Many airlines think the way of the future is to build their own teams in-house to take over the user interface on top of these API’s, but are finding it more difficult and costly to integrate them than originally expected.”

4.     In-house digital teams at airlines: Slone highlighted that most of the evolutions in airline websites are not coming from the IBE, but rather the user interfaces and products developed around the IBE to surpass their limitations. These innovations are being spearheaded by the airlines themselves and very rarely the large tech company providing the IBE.  “We’ve seen this in our customers like Icelandair and Finnair who have built their own digital teams in-house.  They are following the lead of companies like Ryanair and EasyJet (these airlines have set up large UX and development teams in-house that design and build their IBE’s).” He added that airlines are starting to see the importance of expanding the types of products they can sell beyond one-way and round-trip and they have realized that creating digital systems to make online booking easier will help them add more revenue.  If any investment is going into IBE’s it is allowing airlines to sell complimentary products better such as ancillaries.

5.       New functionalities: Airlines have been working on simplification of platforms, introducing options for booking complex stopover itineraries, enabling accessing of a shopping cart from different devices etc. Considering the significance of stop-over for Icelandair, the team at Travelaer developed a new type of booking widget that would take the complex multi-city format needed for stop-over bookings and make it user friendly and simple.  The team chose to combine a mapping element connected to the booking widget to display the customer itinerary and timeline on the map, so that users could visualize what they were booking before they ever left the booking widget. “We also knew that one of the top user errors were linked to flight availability and the customer choice of dates from the calendar, so we solved this problem by connecting pricing and availability directly to the calendar, which didn’t allow a customer to choose date in which there were no available flights. We further simplified the experience for the user by asking them questions about stop-over instead of them having to fill out numerous forms. These simple UI and functionality changes made a huge difference for Icelandair. The airline saw their stop-over bookings online dramatically increase after we launched the stop-over booking widget and engine,” said Slone.  

6.     Being realistic with what to expect from an IBE: The best airline sites rely on their IBE’s to complete a booking and most of the heavy lifting in terms of user experience and segmentation is happening on top or outside of the IBE, said Slone. “The customer journey is a long one and although the actual IBE plays an important part in the overall user experience, it is a very small one.  When looking at the complete customer journey, the booking of air is only one of potentially 30+ phases of travel. Because of this, airlines should rely on the booking engine to do its job- connect users with flights and allow them to book it- but not expect a booking engine to build, develop, and maintain relationships with their customers. This is done outside of the IBE,” said Slone, who added that users have no tolerance for usability issues or slow sites, and an airline site only has one chance to impress and capture the customer.  

On another note, pertaining to differentiation, he said, “Airlines need to improve their ability to offer persistent login to their customers across multiple sites, much like Amazon or Facebook. When you visit Amazon or Facebook, you are never prompted to login, you are almost always logged in unless you are accessing credit card or other sensitive information. Airlines need to adopt this same approach to make it easier on the customer to enter an airline site, track what they are doing, and then engage with the customer outside of the IBE in the places they want to communicate.”

7.     Preparing for the future: The future of an airline’s digital success is building their own “best of breed” platform that can incorporate seamlessly the best travel tech products or modules into one experience, said Slone. “Relying on one IBE or one travel tech partner is often a mistake because the airline is held back by the abilities of one provider, when they could be advancing by working with multiple providers. Some airlines will always want the “easy button,” but the innovative airlines will push beyond the spoon feeding that happens from the large travel tech providers,” he said. “For most airlines, their focus should be less about their IBE and more about what happens after an air booking – “Manage Trip” and online check-in are the best places to develop a great relationship with customers as well as increase revenue from them who booked with an OTA.” He also added that carriers need to be connecting user experience with conversion rate optimization, but this isn’t happening today because most airlines don’t understand the relationship between the two. Plus, airlines need to develop a “fail fast” attitude. One that allows them to quickly produce new innovative digital experiences.


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