The online travel market in the UK is valued at more than £17bn, and half of all customers book holidays on the web, yet there is much room for improving the user experience.
Travel customers are also a fickle bunch, with low brand loyalty, so brands that can offer a great customer experience can differentiate themselves.
With this in mind, QuBit has produced a benchmark study of five of the UK's airline brands and their online performance.
British Airways comes out of the study with flying colours while (surprise, surprise) Ryanair is bottom of the table...
The report looks at the search and social presences of the five airlines, as well as an assessment of website usability.
As you can see from the summary table below, there's a big gap between top and bottom, and Ryanair is cast adrift at the foot of the table. Not that Michael O'Leary will be losing any sleep over it.
This is a crucial first step in the process, and four of the five performed well. BA and easyJet scored 100%, with Ryanair scoring 94%. Monarch scored 83% and Flybe scored 66%.
So what is Flybe doing wrong?
When you click in the 'flying from' field, this HUGE menu pops out, which is a bit off-putting.
It makes some sense, as it clearly shows which airports you can fly from (and fly to, once you have selected the departure airport), but the bottom part of the table isn't visible, and it doesn't allow me to manually enter the city or airport.
I prefer the easyJet approach, which allow the user to enter an airport and then auto-suggests once you have entered a few characters:
As you might expect, this is awful when used on tablet or mobile, and therefore Flybe is deterring a lot of potential customers:
Search results pages
As the report says, these should be clear, easy to understand, and easy to manipulate, so you can try out different days and flight times without too much hassle.
Again, Flybe doesn't perform well here, mainly because the area above the fold is dominated by promotion of its 'new economy' package. I want to see flight search results dammit!
Ryanair manages to be less usable, thanks to its crazy captcha screen which you have to pass before you can view results:
In addition, it managed to open a new tab on my browser showing hotels in Barcelona, which is not good at all. The captcha is there to stop sites scraping its content, but I wonder how many customers are deterred by this.
The search results page is cluttered, and the Google ads are an unwelcome distraction. Does Ryanair really want me to click through to one of its competitors?
By contrast, the BA results pages is much clearer:
Are airlines upfront about total costs?
This is something that annoys users of travel sites. It can be so hard to find the actual price you will end up paying. You've often invested a lot of time and effort before this information is finally revealed.
In the case of Ryanair, the £73.99 price I saw on the results page has changed to £124 after one more step:
BA had the best score here, with 86%. This is thanks to an enclosed checkout, steps in the process labelled clearly, a useful summary of flight times and costs, as well as clear links to security policies and customer services:
BA wins on search presence, though all sites performed well across the top five keywords in the sector, with Flybe topping this section.
BA outperformed the other sites by bidding on their brand term to dominate the first page of results on a brand search and bidding on high traffic search terms.
Both easyJet and Ryanair have reasonably strong brand search reaches, though, like with Flybe and Monarch, they are heavily reliant on SEO to drive traffic to their site.
Though all five airlines had some sort of presence on at least three social networks. British Airways topped this section with a reach of over 1m, including a following of more than 650,000 on Google+.