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Airlines hit snag with online customer service

A study finds that many airline Web sites are difficult to navigate, offer little more than flight information, or are too slow.

Instead of skyrocketing across the Internet, much of the airline industry appears to be losing altitude online.

Many airline sites are difficult to navigate, offer little more than flight information, or are too slow, according to Gomez Advisors, an e-commerce research firm, which today released results of its Spring 2000 Internet Airline Scorecard.

"Customers expect to be coddled, but we found (airlines') customer service as spotty," said Gomez analyst Krista Pappas. "Sheer volume has left them incapable of handling 24-7 customer service."

Gomez ranked the 23 sites based on ease of use, customer confidence, on-site resources and relationship services.

The top site was United Airlines, followed by Northwest Airlines. Both offer links to customer service contact information, travel upgrade capabilities and personalization features.

Among the larger carriers, US Airways and Southwest Airlines fared the worst, ranking 8th and 12th, respectively.

The Internet was expected to revolutionize the airline industry, allowing customers to buy tickets and get better deals and helping airlines save money. But customers have grown disenchanted, analysts say, because they can't find the rock-bottom fares that airlines initially offered online to draw traffic.

"The gimmick may have worn off," Pappas said.

Customers spent $6 billion in the online airline industry last year, according to Internet research group Jupiter Communications. But most travelers still book through a travel agent or by phone.

Of the five biggest airlines--United, American Airlines, Northwest, Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines--United ranked the highest in three categories: overall score, on-site resources and relationship services.

Northwest was the top site in the customer confidence sector, according to the survey. A Northwest representative said the company has won top awards in other online surveys and continues to work on its site.

"We have listened to our customers, and they told us they want a site that's fast, easy to use and intuitive," spokesman Dennis Mollura said. "We've been building and revamping as we go."

Representatives from United and Southwest did not return phone calls.

Gomez' Pappas said customers don't always expect a lot from airlines, particularly those that advertise cheaper, no-frills flying, such as Southwest. That airline, the survey noted, doesn't accept email inquiries from customers.

"People don't really expect that much from Southwest," Pappas said. "The airline's customers want low fares, and that's what they get--with very little frills. But many online consumers want convenience, and we think part of doing business online is offering email inquiries."