This Thanksgiving, airlines are seeking more direct on-website bookings. The idea is to cut out the aggregators, while boosting customer satisfaction and brand equity. The problem is, some middlemen are still doing it better.

By Eliran Peretz, Customer Experience Analyst, Clicktale

When I first noticed that visitors arriving from aggregator sites to the international airline websites I cover were more likely to convert than those arriving directly – I was quite pleased. 

This is great news for the airlines, I thought at first. Customers are arriving ready to buy, having done their research elsewhere. Somebody else does the legwork, my clients reap the benefits. 

But when I thought more about it, I got worried. Because there must be a reason that customers aren’t coming to the airline websites first. And what percentage of customers never make it to the site at all, but rather buy from aggregators or – even worse – another airline?

So now, just in time for Thanksgiving, it’s time to talk straight turkey about how airline websites are doing from a customer experience point of view, and how they could be doing it better.

Direct Purchase – A New Travel Trend

Here’s the thing: the trend in travel is direct purchases from vendor websites. For lodging, air travel, and car rental – more and more customers prefer to buy directly from providers. The reasons for this range from distrust of the shadier aggregators to questionable customer service after the sale. Whatever the reason, it’s a trend that serves airlines well – they cut out the middleman, and enhance their brand. The aggregators may be less happy about this trend, of course, but we’ll leave that issue aside for now.

The big question airlines need to asking themselves is: why aren’t more shoppers converting directly, based solely on their visit to my site?

To answer this question, I conducted a thorough user experience review of my clients’ websites, along with a number of other airline sites. The answer is deceptively simple: less people convert directly from airline sites because many aggregators are still doing it better. Better user experience, greater flexibility, and – let’s face it – often better prices. 

But this situation can be changed. And the changes don’t have to involve mega-redesigns and super-expensive functionality. Much of it simply involves giving shoppers more of what they’re looking for. Below are five tips I’ve come up with to help airlines draw more customers away from aggregators. 

The Tips

  • Tip #1 – Flexibility

As air travel becomes more of a commodity, much of it is unplanned and last minute. Entire aggregator websites have sprung up around this principle, but how many airlines cater to customers with flexible travel dates and destinations? Not many.

I’m not saying the backend work required to enable this is completely negligible, but it’s not rocket science, either. Offer your customers the option of finding the cheapest destination for this coming weekend, or a monthly view to help him find the cheapest flight options for his destination of choice.

  • Tip #2 – Price

I understand that airlines can’t guarantee that their flights from Point A to Point B are the cheapest of all airlines – especially when they’re going head to head with Bob’s Do-It-Yourself, Bring-Your-Own-Jet-Fuel Ultra Low Cost Airline. 

But what about guaranteeing the cheapest tickets on their own flights? If airlines want to draw traffic and wallets away from aggregators, they really need to make sure that their own stock isn’t being sold for less money elsewhere.

  • Tip #3 – Payment Options

Not all credit cards were created equal, nor certainly credit limits. And not all credit cards work for large international purchases. Payment facilitators like PayPal figured this out eons ago, yet few if any airlines allow payment via PayPal. This is a literal no-brainer – almost no administrative or technical overhead to cut a huge step out of the checkout flow (with PayPal, customers don’t need to enter long payment and billing info). Make it easier for your customers to pay, and they’ll be more likely to buy directly from you.

  • Tip #4 – Urgency

Moving customers down the funnel is a challenge for any online business. For high-priced airline tickets, all the more so. One of the standard tricks of the trade, and one that aggregators have adopted in a big way, is creating urgency. Let customers know that they need to decide quickly to snag the best deals by indicating how many tickets are left at the more attractive price points. A big red “Only 5 tickets left at this price!” notification can go a long way towards encouraging travelers to take out their wallets.

  • Tip #5 – Different Strokes for Different Travelers

Business travelers and leisure travelers are radically different in their tastes and needs. By watching user sessions and using advanced in-page behavioral metrics, I’ve seen how business travelers – for example – utterly ignore repeated offers for discounts on checked bag fees. Similarly, family travelers almost never chose to purchase access to an airport lounge. 

The conclusion? Adapt content, especially ancillary offerings, according to traveler type. Don’t even bother offering a family lounge access, and don’t offer businesspeople kids meals. It is not a technological challenge to make this happen, and the benefits to conversions – not to mention customer satisfaction – can be dramatic.

The Bottom Line

Airlines can enhance direct bookings, and take back significant wallet share from aggregator sites. However, airlines looking to impact the bottom line with more direct sales and return customers will need to keep user experience in the forefront to make it happen.

As a Customer Experience Analyst at Clicktale, Eliran Peretz uses the Clicktale solution to go beyond traditional traffic analytics to analyze and understand actual visitor behavior and user experience. He works closely with industry-leading travel customers to optimize and increase online ROI and achieve business goals.