Jeff Veen has a dead-on article on his blog about the mess of the airline industry and how that bubbles up to the carrier websites and the ticket purchasing experience. Like any poorly designed, silo’d industry, you can see their org charts in the way they handle you as a customer and in the services they provide.
He (and the commenters to the post) lament how poor the websites are for the airlines, and primitive the experiences are for the crucial ticket-buying experience. Just about every airline and third party site (Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, etc.) look and operate in almost exactly the same way. Can you tell which is which in the composite above?
Airlines are not alone in having high levels of technical, organizational, financial, and political complexity which then get exposed to the customer. The medical industry is just the same, if not worse, as I wrote about in another post. Cellphone providers are somewhat similar. But last time I bought a cellphone I was struck by how much easier and pleasant it was to find what I wanted and purchase it through Amazon than it was from T-Mobile themselves. So it can be solved.
A few weeks ago I was turned on to Kayak by my colleague Nicholas Kim at work. It does about as a nice a job as anyone out there of the mechanics of the purchase process, in particular acknowledging the fluidity of the process as you try out different times, days, routes and airlines to find the best price. Though the aesthetics leave something to be desired, they have great features like dynamic sliders that allow you to adjust departure windows without having to do a full refresh on the page. This greatly speeds up winnowing your schedule/price combo. It also does realtime disambiguation of similar city/airport names, instead of forcing an interstitial page that is a huge road bump on the way to getting your airfare.
Even though the airlines really need to figure this problem out to prevent continue erosion of direct sales and syphoned off profits, my guess is that it’s going to be a smaller, more nimble third party player (who is fighting a multi-flank battle of their own, but who is focused on this one goal) that will solve the problem first. Because they don’t have the organizational baggage of the airlines themselves, they can get out of their own way and create a smoother experience for the customer. If they can crack this, and presumably treat it not simply as booking a flight but preparing for an entire trip (and I’m talking going beyond offering car/hotel bundles here), then they will dis-intermediate the airlines even further, and speed them along the way to being high priced taxis that they’ve already started to become. (Once taxi’s start giving you peanuts, they’ll be at parity.) Certainly if you look at Delta’s revamped site, which I did a test purchase on to see what it was like after it was hyped in the NY Times article that Jeff refers to, they’ve got a long way to go.