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Online travel agencies: what if we really delivered a customer experience that matched our customers?

Apart from a few UFOs like Airbnb (accommodation) or Virtuo (car rental) that have structurally changed travelers’ habits, the travel industry has not moved much. In the airline industry, we have been booking our tickets in the same way for years, on the same websites, with a customer experience that has only deteriorated over time. At the same time, travelers’ expectations have changed dramatically. The pandemic has only exacerbated the lack of consumer confidence in online booking sites. It has also accelerated environmental awareness and, as in most sectors (e.g. food, textile, etc.), it has also accelerated the transition from mass consumption to more controlled, higher quality consumption.

There is now a real desire to “travel better”, in a reasoned and more qualitative way. According to a new report by the Chaire Pégase, 15-25 year olds are even willing to pay 14% more for their plane tickets to limit their carbon footprint, a strong gesture for a target with limited means.

The travel industry will not escape this trend. It is high time for the airline industry to take a step forward in terms of customer experience in order to offer products and services adapted to these new aspirations and to meet the quality expectations of travelers in 2022.

In my opinion, 3 areas of improvement deserve particular attention:

Real-time availability of the offer

Unlike the rail or hotel sectors, it is impossible today to have precise visibility, to the second, on an airline’s inventory. In other words, the airline varies its prices faster than they send them to the various distributors, notably the online travel agencies. This means that at any time a user can select a ticket on a travel agency’s website, enter his personal and payment information and then be informed, at the time of payment, that the ticket is no longer available at that price. By 2022, we should no longer be doing this to the traveler. We should be able to ensure that the tickets offered are available, at the posted price, until payment is confirmed, as is the case in other sectors.

Like many other problems encountered by travelers, this is caused by the current low level of technology and this type of problem logically degrades the image of reliability of the sector and reinforces the uncertainty that the traveler may encounter when booking an airline ticket.

The clarity of information (UX)

Our lives are punctuated by sites or applications with increasingly clear and intuitive interfaces. In the banking market, fintechs (Revolut, Lydia or N26 for example) have totally changed the way we manage our money and have forced us, little by little, to realize that our traditional banks’ applications deserve a good refresh. We also need this wave in the airline industry to raise the overall quality level of the traveler experience!

The numbers show it, according to a study conducted by IATA, 41% of people find it too long and complicated to search and book a flight (source: IATA NDC Airline Passenger Online Study Q3 2015). Is this really surprising? Today’s traveler is dropped into a jungle with thousands of offers and hundreds of sites that offer, most of the time, a fraught experience: too much information, untraceable cancellation conditions, excessive advertising, often outdated design, useless options, prices that sometimes change during the booking process, taxes not included…

This is true before the reservation but not less so afterwards: it is always difficult to find accessible and reliable information about administrative procedures or restrictions related to Covid. However, in a world where we receive hundreds of pieces of data per minute, clarity of information and ease of access to it have become essential elements in providing an experience that lives up to the expectations of the traveler in 2022. Moreover, having a clear and intuitive site is also a vector for growth and loyalty and, even if some players have understood this very well (e.g. the French airline Transavia), we still have considerable efforts to make in the industry.

After-sales service

Appeared at the end of the 90’s to replace physical agencies, do online travel agencies (OTAs) really live up to their name? For the majority, they have totally forgotten the role of advice and support that was offered at the time, when you went to book your trip in your local agency. Today, once you have bought your plane ticket, the service often stops there, after the confirmation email. This is not a travel agency. This is a counter.

Moreover, at a time when everyone is used to having everything, right away, it is often very difficult to get an answer, either by email or by phone. Some customer services are even charged! It’s time for travel industry players to realize that offering quality customer service is not only a source of cost but surely the most profitable marketing lever. What is more powerful than a satisfied person telling his friends and family about it?

In their defense, this situation is also the result of the technological level and complexity of the back-office tools they use (GDS in particular), which severely limits their powers and the possibilities of automating certain tasks. Some new players such as Duffel are trying to bring an answer to this problem but the work is colossal. Whatever happens, it remains necessary to develop new tools, modern and accessible, offering great flexibility and an excellent connection between airlines and travel agencies. In this way, the customer service agent will be able to be truly at the service of his customers and, in fact, the traveler will finally be able to benefit from a fluid experience, from the search for his ticket to the take-off, whoever he is talking to.

Traveling is no longer just a plane ticket or a confirmation for a night in a hotel. Travelling is an experience and the challenge is to offer a complete and relevant support, from the reservation to the departure and, whether we like it or not, the price is no longer the only factor in the purchase decision.

In short, the industry’s DNA has to be changed little by little in order to retain demanding consumers; from the selection of the ticket booking platform, to the responsiveness of the customer service, to the different payment options and cancellation conditions, everything has to be perfect.

Tech is obviously at the heart of the answer, it is the key to be able to offer a better booking experience to tomorrow’s travelers. That’s why the technological level of the sector must improve. The world of travel, and mainly air travel, needs to reinvent itself to meet travelers’ expectations at every stage of their journey and bring back that lost trust.

The key to success could be established as follows: create an extraordinary experience capable of exceeding ordinary expectations.


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