Booking flights online can be tricky and mistakes are common due to poor usability.   

Apparently, however, many airlines are unwilling to refund these user errors or learn lessons from them.

There was an intriguing article  I saw the other day in the free Metro newspaper that should sharpen the minds of regular online travel bookers. It seems that customers are being made to pay for their mistakes caused by the poor usability of airline websites. 

According to the article:

“Passengers are being forced to foot the bill for mistakes made during online flight reservations – even if the fault is down to the airline.” 

It cites examples such as a father who bought four tickets but was told he must pay an extra £340 when it was discovered his name was on all four. He was refused a refund.

It is highly likely that the root cause of this man’s error, and similar ones, was an unusable interface or process that led him to submit such clearly incorrect details. The fact that airlines are not acknowledging mistakes caused by their websites, but rather pushing it back at the customers to pay for their mistakes is a sad state of affairs. Caveat emptor indeed! 

This clearly is not going to help their customer relations and will likely leave the cause of the problem unresolved. 

To make matters worse, I would bet that in many cases the mistakes caused by the interface do not get reported back to the team maintaining and designing the website. This is the result of ‘silo‘ effect, common in many businesses, where one team does not communicate potentially important information to another internal team. 

There are many reasons why this happens, but in my experience breaking down these internal barriers and enabling relevant information to be communicated is one of the most effective ways to institutionalise continuous usability improvement.

I book a lot of air and (preferably) rail travel for my job and can see the risk points in most booking processes. 

We also perform usability testing for a large global airline and other travel companies so I know that booking travel online can be very tricky, especially for the less typical booking scenarios, such as postal and billing addresses being different, using discount vouchers, changing bookings or booking tickets through air miles. 

I have made mistakes (such as selecting the wrong travel dates) but fortunately have managed to not be charged for these yet. I will try to be more careful in the future though. 

Just about the only way to justify the hardline stance that certain airlines seem to be taking to user mistakes is if they committed to invest the money they gained this way into improving the usability of their websites. Now that would be a radical approach.

Chris Rourke is the MD of

User Vision