And while a mouse click will not stop an ice storm in Chicago from snarling holiday travel plans, many online tools and services may be able to ease some of the stress. In the last year, the industry has seen the emergence of wireless features and many airlines installing self-ticketing kiosks and computers in terminals to better serve online clients.
"The Internet will never be able to control Mother Nature," said Joshua Friedman, an analyst at IDC. "But sites that allow travelers to react to delays quicker than they otherwise would have by traditional means, like travel agents, will help make traveling easier."
Online travel is already one of the most active and busy areas of the Web. According to recent research from PhoCusWright, 40 percent of online consumers have bought airline tickets on the Internet. By comparison, 44 percent have purchased computers or software, and 42 percent have purchased books. This year, consumers have spent $12.2 billion in e-commerce, with $8 billion on airline tickets alone, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. Online travel sales are expected to reach $29 billion in 2003.
And the holiday travel season will simply increase the volume for the many companies competing in the crowded online travel area. Travelocity.com, which is backed by Sabre, has long been providing online tools for making air, car, hotel and vacation reservations, along with other stalwarts Expedia, a Microsoft spinoff, and Priceline.com.
In the last year, the airlines themselves have pushed online, forming or backing multi-airline companies like Hotwire, a discount ticket broker. The Web site, which offers last-minute and nonrefundable airfare deals, became operational in October.
A consortium of airlines is also backing Chicago-based Orbitz, which will offer online flight booking to more than 30 participating U.S. and foreign carriers. But Orbitz will miss the boat, so to speak, this holiday season, since it has delayed its Web site launch from this year to next June to fine-tune online features such as customer service and its search engine capabilities.
Orbitz, once known as "T2," will offer people free access to its search engine to find airfare. Consumers will also be able to complete online purchases of cruise and vacation packages, the company said.
Orbitz has been hounded by a joint investigation by the Department of Transportation and the Department of Justice over the airlines' proposal and over complaints made by rivals about the fairness of the new venture.
Up, up and away
Several of the newer players have plans to offer, or are already providing, a number of tools that may help ease the pain of holiday travel. Among them: wireless services that give people up-to-the-minute flight information as well as the ability to reschedule flights on the move.
Although still in their fledgling stages, wireless services being established by online companies and airlines are similar to what United Airlines has set up in its lounges and waiting areas. It eliminates the need for passengers who own wireless-enabled laptops and handheld computers to use modem-equipped payphones or lounge telephones. The installations allow travelers to use a wireless connection to read email, surf the Web or even check online to see whether their flight has been canceled.
Trip.com, a new online travel services and technology provider, offers wireless tools for its customers.
The Galileo International subsidiary has built a cellular phone add-on that lets travelers rebook delayed or canceled flights--or those that are missed or need to be changed--from an AT&T wireless phone, without talking to anyone or having to wait on hold. A built-in, tiny browser taps into stored itineraries and provides the customer with a tailored list of rebook options. A traveler then selects one and is re-ticketed.
"Although a lot of the wireless tools out there are targeted at business travelers, a lot of those professionals will also be traveling during the holidays," said Heidi Kim, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix.
Although Hotwire does not have any wireless offerings, the company is going after new customers by doing away with so-called blind purchasing and allowing customers to select low-cost flights without committing to a purchase.
Hotwire says its service is distinct because, through its partnerships with airline carriers, it has the ability to offer customers only the lowest fare. Airlines have a sophisticated system that can predict how many seats on a flight will go unsold up to six months before the travel date. Hotwire partners set aside a certain percentage of their inventory to Hotwire beforehand.
The ticket prices are extremely low because airlines are trying to fill seats they know will not get sold.
But Hotwire is not the only one using this method of ticket purchasing.
Alviso, Calif.-based Savvio.com, which specializes in airfare and cruise bookings, also lets travelers choose departure times and flights without committing to a purchase.
"Savvio offers airline tickets at a low cost with more info," Kim said. "They allow customers to control their purchase by choosing flight times, carriers and space available on the plane. Because Hotwire is looking out for the airline carriers who back them, they don't offer carrier names or times."
That said, analysts consider both companies an improvement over popular discount agencies such as Priceline, which requires customers to purchase their tickets before they know specific departure times or the airline.
Savvio plans to add wireless features next year, chief executive Karen Ha said.
In addition to new services, many airlines and travel sites are making hefty investments to improve customer service.
Hotwire uses outside travel customer service specialists Rosenbluth International. Hotwire promises customers that a representative will respond to their inquiries via either phone or the Web within 12 hours or less.
"Customer service is the primary concern of all the online agencies and airlines," Kim said. "Success for a travel company will come to that agency that brings the return longtime customer at the end of the day."
Good customer service comes in the form of some of the new wireless tools, phone numbers that are positioned prominently on the Web sites, and extra information along with the travel itineraries, such as hotels, rental cars and entertainment events.
But not all industry observers believe the Internet will be able to help quell the headaches of holiday travel. Some say Web travel sites may even add to the trauma.
"Airline delays, bad weather...that stuff happens no matter what," said Kurt Schlegel, a Meta Group analyst.