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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. 

Booking engines

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:

Checkout process

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: 

Search presence

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.

Social reach

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+.

Graham Charlton

Published 4 July, 2012 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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Dominic Miller

Interesting that you (rightly) criticise Ryanair for having a captcha screen, yet you have one yourself for people who make comments on this article! Pot calling the kettle black?

over 4 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

I love the Travel Sector online ! - with it's unique challenges round the hugely dynamic 'cache', facet and moving price factors.

This Usability analysis is very interesting.

But you get quite different league table order if you take user experience to mean ' what does it feel like 24/7 to be a visitor' -ie the 24/7 monitoring approach - of meaningful and dynamic user journeys.

What we see in the work we have done across a range of travel brands: is wide variation in how well they handle the cache challenge: ie what % of the time, for random holiday searches does the visitor find a package they like, only to be told at checkout they can't have it!

Or a very common nasty thing to do with buyers - change the price of a package during the pages between the user first seeing it and putting it into the basket.

The cache problem will likely never completely go away for travel, so the challenge is how best to manage it down : and that takes some close teamwork between marketing and the technology teams.

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Dominic - not really. I'd rather not have any captcha at all, but if we didn't, we'd have to waste our time managing waves of spam comments. It is, sadly, a necessity.

over 4 years ago

Fabian Alvares

Fabian Alvares, Conversion Rate Optimisation at Everything Everywhere (EE) Ltd

@Graham have you guys tried out skill based questions and simple puzzles (Flickr's tic tac toe would be a good example) as opposed to the current captcha screen?

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Fabian - we haven't, no. We did try to find the 'least worst' captcha tool but they're all frustrating to some extent. I think your suggestion would be worth considering.

over 4 years ago

Fabian Alvares

Fabian Alvares, Conversion Rate Optimisation at Everything Everywhere (EE) Ltd

@Graham we tried it for a client and the skills question worked really well, removing it completely was the best option but not a viable option due to the large amounts of spam. I'd definitely give it go.

over 4 years ago

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Jon Leon

Great research. It's always interesting to see where the industry is spending their hard earned marketing dollars.
It's generally incredibly easy to find and book flights and other industries should take note... I agree though, the hidden charges are annoying and should be banished.

over 4 years ago

Dean Marsden

Dean Marsden, Digital Marketing Executive at Koozai Ltd

I guess the confusion with the charges on the RyanAir site is exactly what they are going for!?
Good to see others keeping things simple, after all you are just buying a ticket.

The insights into their online visibility is interesting. Organic looks like a large chunk. I would imagine brand recognition is a big factor for airlines, however as mentioned consumers are not as brand loyal with travel costs unless they are corporate or have specific good/bad experiences.

What does everyone think about the social media spread? Should time be spent relative to the size of the social network? Or perhaps the conversion rates? Should social networks be targeted equally with marketing time?

over 4 years ago

Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton, Editor in Chief at ClickZ Global

@Fabian Thanks for the suggestions.

over 4 years ago

Panos Ladas

Panos Ladas, Digital Marketing Manager at Piece of Cake

"they are heavily reliant on SEO to drive traffic to their site."

I don't believe that easyJet, Ryanair, Flybe and Monarch rank for generic search terms in travel, I'm sure that more generic websites and aggregators rank for this kind of traffic!

over 4 years ago

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Villegas

great Post.. I honestly enjoyed reading this, and thank you for the tips
and information !!

over 4 years ago

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