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Going Offby Christopher Elliott

What tangled Webs we perceive

July 5, 2000
Web posted at: 2:28 p.m. EDT (1828 GMT)

(CNN) -- When the United Airlines Web site quoted Robert Elleman a round-trip fare of $813.31 for a flight between Cincinnati and Buenos Aires, the first thing he did was make a printout. That's because it looked too good to be true.

It was too good to be true. When he tried to book the ticket, the site returned an error message. Then it gave him another price for the flight to Argentina's capital: $1,159.

"I called their Web customer support and worked with a representative for more than an hour, to no avail," he says. "After much haggling, I learned that the real problem involved them posting a price that they did not intend."

United Airlines didn't return calls about this incident. However, I'm not inclined to find the Friendly Skies at fault for the supposedly bogus price -- not entirely, at least.

Elleman waited at least four days between the time he printed the fare and the moment he tried to buy the ticket -- half an eternity, by airline pricing standards. On Sabre, the largest computer reservations system, fares are updated once every four hours. Travel agents can literally sit at their terminals and watch the prices change.

And the survey says

Do you find airlines' Web sites confusing? What was your best -- or worst -- experience buying tickets online?
Sound off on our message board
Do you have trouble getting an advertised price when you book tickets on the Web?

View Results
Click for our 'Going Off' archive

Point the finger at travelers' and airlines' ineptitude in negotiating the relatively new world of online ticketing for some of these mishaps. There is bound to be some turbulence in the fledgling market of e-commerce.

Fleeting fares aside, many of the Web sites operated by the major carriers -- particularly United Airlines -- also have credibility challenges. A recent Gomez Advisors survey of airline Web site reliability found that United ranked No. 15 out of 20 sites rated by customers. Northwest Airlines came in first, with smaller carriers such as JetBlue and Sun Country rounding out the top spots and pushing Alaska Airlines, US Airways and TWA to the basement.

While this doesn't necessarily mean the big airlines run the worst Web sites, the poll results imply that users don't always take what they see online at face value.

Let's take a look at Northwest Airlines, which is sitting smugly at the summit on the Gomez poll. Joe Fleming of Southfield, Michigan, used its "Best Fare Finder" section -- a helpful feature that shows you the lowest fare for your itinerary -- to select a recent flight. Or at least he tried to.

"I had selected a flight from Detroit to Orlando, and was quoted a fare of $215," says Fleming, a technical analyst. "Since you can't directly book that low-fare flight, I used the 'Book a Flight' option, and the lowest fare I could find was $250."

After several attempts to get that price, Fleming called Northwest to find out how to retrieve the fare. A reservationist told him the rules stipulated that the departure must either be on the first or last flight of the day in order to qualify for that rate. "Nowhere was that understandably printed in the fare rules displayed to me," he complains.

Chip Elam's gripe is with Delta Air Lines' site. He recently tried to book a vacation for his family online but couldn't find a rate featured in a printed advertisement. "I tried random guesses and I tried during multiple sessions, but all to no avail. As far I was concerned, the advertised fare and package were simply unavailable," he says. "Because of the bad implementation of technology, I had no idea what was going on. Maybe there were packages available for me or maybe their weren't. I just did not know."

Delta didn't return calls about this incident.

Confusing sites, confounded travelers

Some travelers get bent out of shape because they say airline Web sites are so muddled, they don't know which end is up. What travelers think they see may not be what they get.

That's what happened to Tony Ruckel when he tried to book a round-trip ticket between Pittsburgh and Dallas/Fort Worth. "Vanguard said it was $58 round trip, but when we tried to book it, it became $58 -- one way," he laments.

What can be done about these Web entanglements? Not much, unfortunately. The carriers' "customer service" departments remain largely unsympathetic to the plight of Web users, or not informed enough to help them.

The best answer is to use an agent, right? Well, maybe not.

Some travel retailers don't even book airline tickets because the carriers won't pay them enough in commissions. Airlines have been chopping away at those bonuses since 1995 in an effort to reduce distribution costs. Now, with rumors that one of the big carriers is about to eliminate agents' commissions entirely, it's getting harder to find a real live person who will book a ticket for you.

Maybe it would help if we stopped thinking about buying a ticket as a transaction -- and more as spinning an electronic roulette wheel.

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Archive: More 'Going off'

United Airlines
Sabre Inc.
Gomez Advisors
Northwest Airlines
Sun Country Airlines
Alaska Airlines
US Airways
Delta Air Lines
Vanguard Airlines

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