We all have experienced "airline woes", and like my fellow travelers, I continue to look forward to the day when I can write a story about how great airline web sites are. Hopefully, the story will also describe how well the airlines have integrated all of their information systems and processes so they present themselves as a single seamless interface to their customers. I have complete confidence it will happen, albeit a bit less confidence that all airlines will be able to afford to do what they need to do.
Airlines have a complicated business and are under enormous financial pressure. Even with the elegant and theoretically simplistic web services technology, there is a huge effort ahead to create a modern and seamless integration across the many systems and applications that airlines run. Progress is being made but you can see the legacy systems and vocabulary peeking through the facade. I was talking with an American Airlines agent the other day about some travel arrangements (unfortunately, I was not able to get the information I needed through aa.com). The agents continue to do a great job but they also make it clear that they do not have web access and any questions about the web site have to be directed to a different department at a different phone number (this is not unique to American Airlines). At the conclusion of the discussion, the agent said she would send me an email confirmation with all the details of my upcoming trip. Since my wife would be traveling with me this time, I asked the agent if she could copy my wife’s email address. Sort of. The agent told me that they can only do one email at a time and no copies are possible. The email would take up to 24-48 hours. I could call back the next day and ask that another email for my wife be put "into the system".
You can tell that the airline is not using a completely modern-day email system. There are other clues. The "To:" line of the email says JOHN @ PATRICKWEB.COM. The email is likely being generated from the airline’s mainframe system (which decades ago was predominantly UPPER CASE). Nothing wrong with mainframes, of course. To the contrary, it is great that they have integrated their powerful mainframe back end systems with the web front end. Some cosmetic changes are needed to clean things up so that the web users have confidence that the airline is speaking their language. Part of this is technical, and part is just plain attention to details and grammar. The email said "This is a American Airlines/American Eagle itinerary notification only and does not constitute ticketing". Perhaps the sentence was made generic so that it could also say "This is a United Airlines…..". How about making it "This American Airlines/American Eagle itinerary is for notification only and does not constitute ticketing"? Sometimes the simple things — like good grammar — send us the right signals. It would be nice if the company marketing department, not just the IT staff, has read and approved web pages and email content for grammar, spelling, style, and appropriateness.
Not to pick on airlines, here is my all-time favorite page — at a multi-billion dollar e-tailer web site that was offering gift "certificates online". I clicked, and here is what I got.
"You would need to contact the store where you are wanting to get the gift certificate from. We currently do not offer the purchase Gift Certificates online. If you have any further questions or would like to offer feedback, please email us".
The airline industry is highly competitive and so every airline is working very hard to make their web presence effective. Although making great progress, airlines have a long way to go to become on demand businesses. What is an on-demand business? It is very simple to say, although it requires a huge amount of work to achieve. An on demand business is one that allows you to engage with them whenever you want from wherever you are with whatever kind of communications link you have and with whatever kind of device you may be using to do what you need to do with simplicity and productivity. Another way to say it is that an on demand business simplifies your life and saves you time. Again, it is easy to say and hard to do. I continue to say that we are just five percent of the way there. Not long ago I thought it was just two percent, so I do think the businesses of the world are making significant progress.