Commercial air travel may be in a downward spiral as flight delays, mishandled luggage and crowded planes become more common. But there is one place where airlines are making things easier for travelers: Web sites.
Just last month, American Airlines changed its site to make it easier for online shoppers to choose flights by price and schedule. Delta Air Lines, which last year began allowing customers to search for flights up to three days before or after their chosen travel dates, is now focusing on making its site a one-stop shop for car rentals, travel insurance, airline club passes and other extras.
Southwest Airlines, following a similar move by Northwest, announced this month that customers can now use PayPal to buy tickets at its Web site.
Most major airline sites can now be displayed in more than one language. And many carriers have been making it easier to search for frequent-flier award tickets by displaying award availability at a glance, over a range of days.
The goals are simple: Attract more travelers to the sites, cut customer service costs and increase sales. Services such as PayPal, which allows customers with e-mail addresses to send and receive payments online using debit cards, bank accounts or stored balances, appeal to travelers who might not otherwise be able to book tickets online.
Giving travelers opportunities to reserve hotels, car rentals and other services as they're booking plane tickets, as Delta is doing, helps bring in extra revenue for those sales and keeps customers from switching over to sites such as Expedia or Travelocity.
This sort of expansion of Web offerings, said Henry H. Harteveldt, principal travel analyst at Forrester Research, "is proof that airlines are starting to embrace online retailing rather than just pushing tickets."
American Airlines, which gets 1.4 million visitors to AA.com on an average weekday, is making the booking process less opaque. It no longer forces travelers to search for tickets by either price or schedule. Instead of confronting a long list of flight times or round-trip fares for a given date, a customer can now click on Price & Schedule to view prices in an easy-to-read grid that shows up to eight fare categories, including "y-up" airfares, those coveted coach-price tickets for business or first-class seats. For a given day, the lowest available fare is highlighted in a blue tab at the top of the page. Prices are shown as one-way fares, which lets travelers pick and choose the combinations of price and schedule that are most convenient for them.
The changes make it much easier for a traveler to see all fare and schedule options for a given day, but American stands to benefit, too. Providing a full array of choices, said Rob Friedman, director of interactive marketing for American Airlines, gives the company the opportunity to "up-sell the customer in places where the price and schedule combo best fits their needs."
Whether that means paying more for a less-restricted, more-flexible coach fare or for an upgrade to business or first class, said Harteveldt, "the airline can expect a portion of AA.com buyers to trade up to a higher-margin product."
"If 5 percent of AA.com customers pay an extra 5 percent on the average American Airlines ticket," Harteveldt said, "the airline would generate $11.2 million more revenue."
American isn't the only airline going the a la carte route. For years, Southwest's site, south west.com, has been displaying a range of fare categories -- from fares refundable at any time to restrictive fares -- for each flight. Amadeus, which processes travel bookings and provides airlines with software that it calls Flex Pricer, said that more than 20 carriers, mostly international, are using it to help increase revenue.
Travelers with flexible travel dates will find it easier to search at airline Web sites for better fares over a broader range of dates -- Delta, for example, now lets customers search for flights up to three days before or after a given travel day. But Travelocity. com still offers the widest range of all -- up to 330 days ahead for domestic fares. To search for international fares using flexible dates, customers can go to Travelocity's Singapore-based affiliate zuji.com, said George Hobica of airfarewatchdog.com. To avoid "extraordinarily high" booking fees, he recommends switching back to Travelocity to make the purchase after you have found the dates you want.
Airlines have also been improving online service for travelers shopping for frequent-flier award tickets. American provides a booking calendar showing all available awards up to 14 days before or after a chosen date. Travelers can switch instantly among four levels of award types, using color-coded tabs, to see how availability varies.
United.com, the United Airlines site, lets members of its frequent-flier program more easily see alternative dates for award tickets if a first choice is unavailable. And Delta, which upgraded its award booking page earlier this year, is expanding its monthly calendar of award seats to two months, so customers can view departure and return calendars side by side.
Even though your booking experience may be improved at the airline's Web site, it doesn't mean your flight experience will be any better.
"No matter how good the airlines' Web sites get, flying can still be stressful," Harteveldt said. "If airline Web sites operated like the airlines themselves, we'd still be waiting for the first page to download."