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ELECTRONIC EXPLORER

Southwest Flies High on Web Success

March 12, 2000|LAURA BLY

With its wisecracking chairman, singing flight attendants and lack of seat assignments, low-fare, no-frills Southwest Airlines has always been a maverick in the industry.

Dallas-based Southwest became the first major airline to sell its tickets online in 1996. And in a dot.com-crazed travel industry plagued by far more lookers than bookers, Southwest's Web sites (http://www.iflyswa.com and http://www.southwest.com) seem to be paying off.

The airline recently announced that Internet bookings accounted for 27% of passenger revenue in January, twice that of its closest rival, Alaska Airlines. A recent survey by Nielsen/NetRatings, an Internet audience measurement service, showed that the percentage of Southwest's Web site visitors who become buyers was 9.1%, a conversion rate higher than that of e-commerce darling Amazon.com. The airline says it will pass $1 billion in Web revenue by the end of 2000, up 140% from a year ago.

So what's Southwest's secret?

Low expectations, says Krista Pappas, an analyst with Gomez Advisors (http://www.gomez.com), a research company that reviews and ranks the usefulness of travel booking sites. "Their site isn't one of the easiest to navigate," Pappas says. "They don't have a lot of tools and features, and their customer service is nil. But customers associate Southwest with cheap. The site's message is: 'We are who we are, and what you see is what you get.' "

Until a major redesign last fall, visitors to Southwest's home page saw a garish, folksy rendition of an airport gate, complete with a photo of chairman Herb Kelleher on the wall behind a virtual counter. In a throwback to tradition, would-be passengers had to click on an icon of a phone to reach online reservations.

The remodeled Southwest site still lacks an e-mail address for online questions, a basic feature on other booking sites. Kevin Krone, Southwest's senior director of marketing automation, is unapologetic: "We've always taken pride in our personal relationship with customers, [but] we don't do everything everyone else does." Krone argues that it would be too costly to hire enough employees to respond in a timely fashion online.

Southwest's site lags behind its competitors in other key areas too. It doesn't let Internet customers make reservation changes or check flight status, redeem frequent-flier miles or purchase senior citizen and other special fares. There's no interactive calendar on the reservations page, and destination and airport information is buried under the heading "About SWA."

Yet Southwest stands out for its "incredibly easy reservation process" that makes finding flights and identifying the lowest available fare a relative breeze, notes the Gomez Advisors review. Another major plus: double frequent-flier points for all online bookings.

Southwest's short-haul flights "are, by definition, less complex and more prone to self-service booking," says Marc-David Seidel, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin and head of Airlines of the Web (http://flyaow.com), a reservations site that links to airlines worldwide.

What's more, Seidel says, the fact that Southwest flights are sold only through Sabre, one of four major computer reservations systems, means "they force more of their traffic through the Web site."

"When you call their toll-free reservations line, they even encourage you to . . . use the site while you are on hold," he says.

Southwest's future online success may be threatened by a yet-to-be-named Web site that will let consumers shop for both published and Internet-only fares on 27 airlines. The new venture, which plans to launch by late spring, has already generated an antitrust complaint from the American Society of Travel Agents.

Meanwhile, Southwest isn't resting on its reputation as the top banana of airline e-commerce. A new advertising campaign urges fliers to "log on for low fares"--including a coast-to-coast, Web-only special of $198 round trip for tickets purchased through March 22.

Electronic Explorer appears the second Sunday of every month. Laura Bly welcomes comments and questions; her e-mail address is LSBly@aol.com.

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