Web technology fuelling self-service
By stephendavis on Oct 30, 2006
International air travel is probably the best example of how online self-service has transformed the customer experience. For passengers that have booked their flight online - either via a travel agent or flight aggregator site, or the airline's own web site, it is possible not to have any human contact with the airline itself until a member of the cabin crew checks your boarding pass at the departure gate as you embark the plane.
For the airlines, most of which operate at very thin margins on the de-regulated routes, online self service has helped to reduce on-the-ground staffing costs at airports as well as lower the cost of ticket sales from bypassing travel agents' commissions. The acceptance of online booking by passengers has meant that most of the low cost carriers now only sell direct. The days of the flag carriers maintaining a network of their own embassy-like ticket offices in prestigious retail locations in major cities around the world seem to be gone.
For the passenger, after the financial booking has been made online, it is possible to add frequent flyer details, request seat allocations, order special meals and even check-in up to 24 hours before the flight, all of which previously would have required a phone call to the airline. At the airport check-in, much of the time spent standing in line is accounted for by data entry by the desk clerk - a task that has be transferred to the customer.
Airlines have always struggled to differentiate themselves from their competitors, since by virtue of what they supply: travel between the same cities and airports; on the same planes (and seat configurations); with the same journey time; with the same food; the same on-the-ground facilities; and even the same ticket prices. Most have needed to resort to promoting the quality of their in-flight service (smiling hostesses or television channels) or genoristy of their frequent flyer programmes.
Online customer self-service has not only enabled airlines to reduce their cost base but provide greater service differentiation to passengers through perceived 'mass customistation' of what is after all a commoditised product.