Airlines are adding special incentives to entice Netizens from the virtual world of cyberspace to real world of travel.
The latest is Northwest Airlines (NWAC), which today updated its Web site to make booking tickets online much easier. The carrier is also offering a teasing benefit: Those purchasing tickets via its Web site by August 21 will get a free companion ticket for choosing Northwest on their next flight.
Northwest's deal is just one in a string of promotions for airlines that want to increase the number of online ticket buyers. While many airline companies have had Web sites up for one or two years, they are starting to update them with bonus mile promotions, contest prizes, and ticket deals reserved solely for Net buyers.
"It gives them immediacy and control for their own travel plans," said Bill Mapp, director of Internet development for Continental Airlines. "We're reaching a different audience in many respects out there--the online audience. So we're actually expanding business."
Most of the Web specials are targeted toward customers who have frequent flyer plans with the airline. One of Continental's target groups is the leisure traveler who can easily sign up for the airline's "mileage plus" plans when booking online. Frequent flyers also receive an additional 1,000 miles just for using the Internet for their travel plans.
"To a lot of people, it's something that they haven't done before so that's an incentive to say, 'Hey, come and try it,'" Mapp said.
American Airlines is having a contest through the month of August to celebrate the one-year anniversary of its revamped site. The promotion offers free tickets, digital equipment, and 1,000 bonus miles for frequent flyers.
"When you look at the big picture, [online reservations] are still a small piece of the pie," said American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith. But, he added, "bookings are definitely up."
Many airlines also have added surveys to create another market research venue and to give users the chance to comment on their sites. Those surveys were what drove Northwest to change its site, because the No. 1 complaint, echoed throughout the Internet, was that ticket buyers did not want to take the risk of putting their credit cards in cyberspace.
In order to address this issue, Northwest gave purchasers the choice of making a reservation online and calling in to give agents their credit card number over the phone.
American Airlines also offers the call-in service, but Smith said most people who choose to use the Internet don't want to take the extra step of making a phone call.
"Most people who are comfortable with Internet booking and travel planning are also comfortable with Internet security technology," he noted.
Although airlines are claiming success with their multilayered sites, which offer travelers everything from arrival times to weather reports, they still will have a hard time competing with travel agents, who have reputations for getting flyers the best deals.
In its August issue, Conde Nast Traveler magazine weighed the costs and benefits of using book-your-own-reservation travel sites and found that the best way to find the best deal is by picking up the phone and having someone else do the searching for you.
Anna Marilla, a travel agent with discount traveler Council Travel in San Francisco, agreed. "We have our own contracts with our airline. If all you did was go to the airline, then you wouldn't know what Council Travel could offer you," she said.