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Airlines Continue to Upgrade Web Sites

Posted by iTech - 2005-11-09

DALLAS - Squeezed by high fuel costs, airlines continue to turn to their Web sites and other technology to save money and make customers happy by speeding up the check-in process.
Many airline travelers, of course, still buy their tickets at reservation counters or over the phone from call centers. But the airlines are pushing customers to book travel online, which saves the carriers on labor costs.

The Web site of American Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier, draws upward of a million visitors a day, and its revenue has increased 60 percent from a year ago, accounting for 35 percent of American's total ticket sales, said an airline vice president, Bella Goren.

Fort Worth-based American won't provide precise dollar figures for online ticket sales, but Goren said it had 10 days in September with more than $22 million in bookings apiece.

American, a unit of AMR Corp., also is trying to boost sales of hotel rooms and rental cars on its site. This summer, it began working with a seller of last-minute vacation packages. Still, those side businesses remain a tiny fraction of the site's revenue.

American is also adding capabilities to its airport self-service kiosks, such as confirming standby status and paying for extra baggage.

Airport kiosks have been growing in popularity. Consulting firm Accenture Ltd. said a recent survey showed that nearly nine in 10 business travelers check in and get boarding passes at kiosks.

The most successful airline Web site, in terms of percentage of an airline's tickets sold online, probably belongs to Southwest Airlines Co.

The Dallas-based carrier sells more than half its tickets on its Web site, which has allowed the company to close some of its ticket-selling call centers. The airline has also looked to technology to reduce the need for labor at the airports.

Over the past three years, it has paid Dell Inc. $12 million to install technology that, among other things, lets Southwest issue paper boarding passes instead of the reusable, color-coded plastic ones that the airline used for many years.

The paper passes contain a barcode for each passenger, including those who print their boarding pass at home. Southwest uses about 350 touch screen ticket readers at airport gates to track each customer who gets on the plane, said Don Harris, Southwest's senior director of airport technology.

Southwest is working on using information from the boarding passes, along with factors such as cargo and fuel, to calculate the weight and balance of each plane load, Harris said.

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