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The travel industry has experienced a great deal of upheaval in years characterised by swift change in customer habits and the impressive unwillingness of many companies to adapt.

To be fair, travel companies have come a long way in the past three to four years. Apps are now common place for airlines and some airports and travel websites are starting to adopt responsively designed websites.

In this post I’ll be taking a look at some recent studies into the mobile strategies of travel companies and airlines.

I’ll be pondering what the best approach is for these companies and whether in fact there’s no sense in avoiding apps or responsive websites, given their respective parts to play in the customer journey.

Travel websites

A Nucleus study into 11 travel websites showed that in October of 2013 more than one in three visits to these websites are now from mobile devices.

Admittedly I couldn’t find which websites were monitored, but the figure still represents a bugle call for travel websites.

Making sure that customers, and the devices they use, are supported throughout the customer journey will release pressure on active customer service and also increase conversion.

Another study by 8MS raises some more interesting questions. The digital agency looked at the type of mobile apps, mobile websites and if mobile boarding passes were used by the top 50 airlines in the world, and the top 11 airlines in the UK and Ireland.

The incentive, now an imperative, to adapt to mobile is clear in travel, where many parts of the customer journey are bound to take place away from a desktop and laptop. But even when researching and booking travel, traffic stats show that this increasingly happens from smartphones and tablets, too.

Google has previously extolled the virtues of a responsive site, yet in the search-competitive market of travel none of the top 50 airlines in the world use responsive design.

Website design

76% use a dedicated mobile site and 22% don’t have a mobile website at all.

Qantas is the only airline in the current top 50 to use Google’s second mobile recommendation, CSS restyling based on user agent detection.

The top UK and Ireland airlines further develop the picture.

  • Two of the top 11 airlines in the UK and Ireland don’t have a mobile website.
  • Eight have a dedicated mobile site.
  • Only Thomas Cook Airlines has a responsive site.

Unsurprisingly (though it's still good to see some stats) Thomas Cook Airlines reports conversion from tablets and smartphones increased by more than 30% after the switch.

Checking in with apps

The 8MS study found that 82% (33 airlines) of the top 50 airlines in the world have at least an iOS mobile application. 14% (seven airlines) have mobile applications that serve iOS, Android and Blackberry devices.

In the UK and Ireland, seven of the 11 top airlines have at least an iOS mobile app, but only one, British Airways, has mobile apps that span iOS, Android and Blackberry devices.

According to this report from Google, 46% of leisure travellers (and 61% of business travellers) use a smartphone to check into their flight.

Emirates is the biggest airline in the world and it doesn’t have a mobile app. It has a mobile website to allow users to make and manage bookings, and retrieve flight information.

Boarding passes

  • 33 of the top 50 airlines in the world use mobile boarding pass functionality, through an app or mobile website.
  • In the UK and Ireland, six of the top 11 airlines use mobile boarding passes.
  • Additionally, 14 airlines around the world use Apple’s Passbook to store mobile boarding passes.

How did we get here?

Airlines and travel agents traditionally have been slow to adapt to new technology. This is partly because it took the internet to disrupt an industry controlled by bean counters to open up to the customer and try to explore different models.

But also, it’s obvious change doesn’t come easy in such a logistically heavy sector. Scheduling IT and development time, aligning web change schedules, messing with booking systems are all factors that prevent many airlines making a step change to responsive.

Consolidating platforms has not come easy (and indeed hasn’t happened) for many airlines and travel sites.

Mobile needs were met with separate sites or apps and it was considered sufficient to ensure that each part of the customer journey worked well, even if it was slightly fragmented.

This is why booking, boarding passes and flight info all often come from separate communications channels (desktop, app and email perhaps).

What’s the best strategy?

Responsive sites for Google-love and conversion

Many users search on their smartphones on Google for travel information, and if the mobile site doesn’t appear, their mobile experience will be less satisfactory. 

Nate Bucholz, Airline Industry Head for Google UK says it’s crucial. 

British travellers research air travel on their mobile devices on a regular basis and it’s crucial that airlines provide a great experience. Those that embrace this consumer trend will have a distinct competitive advantage.

Apps for branding and check-in and boarding passes

Apps are useful for engagement, as we’ve seen, checking-in and viewing flight information.

Apps are good because they allow offline access. Many customers are re-assured by this. Apps give another space for an airline to present their branding to a loyal customer.

In the Nucleus study of smartphone usage on travel sites, iOS was found to be dominant with 82% share of mobile web browsing. Android was up 32%, but still only held a 15% share of mobile web browsing.

Despite iOS having market share for some travel audiences, if airlines are developing apps, it’s vital they’re available on different operating systems. There’s nothing that can annoy users as quickly as finding out there is an app, but not for them.

This is already the case for the large majority of airlines as they don’t provide apps on all three major platforms.

Both are needed

Slowly, airport WiFi will improve (none of those horrible restrictions and paywalls). Customers at home and out travelling will get savvier and more mobile dependent, perhaps foregoing a laptop in favour of a tablet. And so responsive websites will benefit customer and travel site owner.

However, apps are still appropriate for airlines. It’s a relatively small and therefore quite a loyal market characterised by customers who will still need some form of offline access or Passbook option.

Airlines will continue trying to provide the best experience possible, all the way along the customer journey, but there’s no doubt that responsive design is going to be important to beat the competition.

(click to enlarge) 

Ben Davis

Published 4 February, 2014 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is a senior writer at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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