What tangled Webs we perceive
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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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