Web Marries Mobile

A new e-commerce solution within SabreSonic® Web provisions both Web and mobile sites all in one. The solution includes the same capabilities while also allowing for unique and differentiated user experience at each touchpoint.

Since the early 1990s, travel and tourism revenue generated from online bookings has gone from US$0 to US$300 billion and now accounts for nearly one-third of all global travel sales. Part of the fuel for this growth has been the continual increase of Internet penetration and access to computers globally.

Now the stage is being set for exponential growth as more and more mobile Internet-ready devices make their way into the marketplace. The last two years have been a real turning point for the mobile industry, manifested by the dramatic upsurge in usage of Smartphones, tablets and other Web-enabled devices.

The new user experience and improved usability these devices provide is steadily fueling this trend. For example, touch screens allow for some dynamic and efficient designs that are not possible on a non-touch-screen device. This improved experience is rapidly changing the way consumers are able to interact with airlines, and it is changing customers’ expectations in how they can interact with airlines.

Of course, the importance of a good user experience is nothing new and has always been a cornerstone of a sound e-commerce strategy. An airline’s website might be the first experience a customer has ever had with that airline. And it’s the most frequented and accessed touchpoint of any other, so a bad experience likely equates to a lost customer.

Now, customers are engaging with multiple touchpoints to access services and information depending on where they are, what they’re trying to accomplish and what device they have in their hands at that given moment. Therefore, airlines should focus on a new, carefully thought-out user experience strategy.

Smartphones are with us almost all of the time, but they typically rule our mornings and evenings while PCs rule our workdays. For those of us who have tablets, they typically rule our evenings. This means it is not just about providing a seamless experience across different channels anymore, but also across all of these new touchpoints within a channel.

For example, imagine a customer sitting on his couch watching television and searching for fares for his next family vacation on his tablet. He searches multiple sites and has downloaded some travel apps. He shops and narrows down his choices but is not quite ready to book.

The next day, he uses his PC at the office to visit the airline’s website and further refine his options. Then he sends the itinerary link to his wife’s email where she views it on her Smartphone.

Later that evening at home, they go online and make the purchase. Weeks later, before their trip, they receive trip notifications to check in as well as mobile boarding passes and flight status notifications to help them navigate the airport. While on their trip at their destination, they receive airline partner offers based on their location. From the planning stage all the way through the end of the trip, they continue receiving valuable information that makes their trip more enjoyable.

E-commerce Strategy

Before an airline builds its mobile applications, it needs a solid strategy. Ultimately, the end goal is to drive more revenue and increase brand loyalty by reaching the most extensive target audience possible. This is accomplished by maximizing reach through multiple touchpoints. And, it’s critical to have the right products and services at the right time through the right touchpoints with the best possible customer experience to make it all work.

There are several considerations when developing an e-commerce strategy, including:

  • Consistency across platforms forges trust with customers.
  • How to engage customers across multiple devices throughout their journey.
  • Not everything on a website is conducive to mobile devices and vice versa.
  • The most used activities should be added to mobile, focusing on self service.
  • Embracing the uniqueness of mobile, such as GPS and touch screen.
  • Mobile passengers per bookings are fewer (a smaller number of guests within a reservation).
  • Mobile bookings occur within a shorter booking window than Web bookings.

Embracing the uniqueness of mobile devices, such as cameras and GPSs, is critical to an airline’s e-commerce success. There are a number of tasks that can be performed on a mobile device that would be impossible on a website. Therefore, if an airline does not include mobile devices as a large part of its e-commerce strategy, it will lose prospective customers and even those who, prior to the e-commerce craze, were loyal customers. Because every Smartphone has a camera and GPS, airlines should leverage the unique characteristics in a thoughtful and relevant way.

As part of an e-commerce strategy, it’s critical to know and understand what customers want:

  • Timely travel information
  • Engaging user-friendly mobile design
  • Fresh, local content and location-based specials
  • Seamless booking capabilities
  • In-airport information — gates, baggage claim, restaurants, etc.

As mobile adoption increases, so does consumers’ expectations for their user experience on the mobile site or application, including performance — speed, reliability and availability.

Implementation Choices

How does an airline take its website mobile? There are a few options to consider, including:

  1. Do nothing. The airline already has a website, and these devices can access the Internet, so what’s the big fuss?

    Well, the user experience on a mobile device is not at all the same as on a website and may not even be usable on a mobile device. For starters, almost all of the devices built in the last couple of years are touch screen versus the traditional Web experience, which all point and click. Not to mention the fact that a mobile device has a much smaller screen so the content and design has to be changed. Otherwise, customers will not make it beyond the homepage. An airline should visit its homepage using a mobile device and see if this is an option.

  2. Use a Web screen-scraping solution that gathers all Web content and transforms it into a mobile format.

    This is an excellent, fast-to-market option that can get an airline’s site up and running in a short amount of time with minimal investment. However, each time significant changes to the website are made or a new feature is added to the booking engine, there will be additional expenses for updates to the mobile solution. In addition, sometimes there are unexpected customer behaviors, and the airline is limited by the user experience design. Sometimes performance is also degraded. Many companies have started here, but most eventually grow out of this solution and move on to other options that provide more flexibility and control.

  3. Build a true, native mobile application using Web services.

    This option allows airlines to build whatever they want and is only limited by the services and resources that are available. Plus, they get the added benefit of having their app marketed in places such as Android Market/Google Play and the App Store. With native apps, the user experience is tailored to each device and has traditionally been seen as the option that offers the best user experience. The downside? If an airline builds a native mobile app, it must build one for the Android, iPhone and Blackberry platforms each with their own idiosyncrasies.

    Additionally, this option can be a significant investment of time and money up front with additional ongoing maintenance costs. Each time changes are made or new capabilities are added, it has to be built for all device platforms. The airline might even have to build one for a tablet device versus a phone device. The traditional website must be updated, too. All of this can lead to a variance in the capabilities and user experience across all of these touchpoints, which can discourage customers.

  4. Build a new mobile website using Web services.

    Again, this option enables airlines to build whatever they want and is only limited by available services and resources. Basically, they are building a whole new website that is optimized for mobile usage based on the design and capabilities they want to expose to customers. Additionally, now there are ways to create a small native app that launches the mobile site so airlines still get the added marketing benefits to reach more customers through places such as Android Market/Google Play and the App Store without the hassle of creating and maintaining several apps.

    However, like the native mobile app option, there can be a significant investment of time and money up front with additional ongoing maintenance costs to manage the traditional website and, now, the mobile website. Due to the time and costs, typically the mobile solution is built over time or is limited to only a portion of traditional Web capabilities, which frustrates customers because the capabilities on the mobile website differs from those on the traditional website.

  5. Utilize a booking engine platform that provides a mobile app and a traditional Web booking engine.

    With this option, all services and configurations are centralized and exposed to each storefront (Mobile and Web). While the mobile application is not a native app, it still acts like a native app and has less maintenance costs. Because the user interfaces are separated, each can have their own blend of uniqueness and consistency. There will still be ongoing maintenance costs at the user interface layer for every touchpoint created, but this will be the most cost-effective and complete solution overall.

A Single Solution

The new Internet booking engine within SabreSonic Web, is fast becoming a leader within the Internet booking engine marketplace. It provides airlines with the configurability and flexibility of a custom Internet booking engine as well as the stability and time to market of a standard off-the-shelf solution.

The flexibility of SabreSonic Web architecture provides the ability to have multiple storefronts servicing varying touchpoints, including a mobile application storefront. This allows airlines to have a single-source solution based on the same services to support the same capabilities while also allowing for unique and differentiated user experiences at each touchpoint.

The mobile application has a user interface optimized to run in a mobile browser but has the look and feel of a native app. This approach provides the broadest reach with the most consistent user experience across the iPhone, Android and Blackberry mobile devices. In addition to typical Internet booking-engine functionality, the mobile solution includes services like flight status and check-in with the ability to have a mobile boarding pass.

High-level capabilities of the mobile solution includes:

  • Book flights
    • Ancillaries
    • Select seats
  • Manage flights
    • View itinerary
    • Exchange and cancel
  • Self-Service
    • Flight status
    • Check-in with mobile boarding pass
    • Flight schedules

More and more customers are accessing content via their mobile device and expect an airline’s services to be available in multiple touchpoints. With new tools entering the marketplace every day, now is the time to launch a powerful mobile strategy. Airlines that don’t take advantage of robust tools, such as SabreSonic Web, disappoint and frustrate customers. Those customers, in turn, take their business to competitors that provide the customer experience they demand and expect.

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