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The snowstorms that pummeled the U.S. last winter and cancelled hundreds of thousands of flights exposed airlines’ lack of innovation in mobile rebooking technology.

A FlightView report released today indicates rather than making the flight cancellation process simpler for passengers, airlines have only made things more confusing. And passengers made their headaches known.

When FlightView asked respondents in 2012 what their biggest frustration was upon learning a flight is delayed or cancelled, 34% said it’s receiving conflicting flight status information from different sources, such as gate displays, mobile apps and airline websites. When respondents were asked the same question this year, the number rose to 44% for conflicting flight status info. as the largest agitator.

The lack of mobile advancement keeps gate and travel agents busy, evidenced in the report. About 56% of respondents said they use a gate agent at some point during the rebooking process. Passengers who don’t consult their mobile devices at all and go straight to a gate agent for rebooking account for 44% of respondents, and those who first check their mobile device for alternative flights and then ask a gate agent to rebook a flight account for about 14% of respondents.

About 4% call their travel agents directly to rebook a flight, and 17% say they do nothing and wait for the airline to rebook their flights.

“People don’t want to be automatically rebooked by the airline, and they don’t want to wait in line either,” said Katherine Wellman, a spokesperson for FlightView. “Gate agents are still a big part of this process, mostly for the trust mentality passengers have with them because they know if they speak with a person that their flight will get rebooked.”

Wellman said if more airlines improved their mobile rebooking platforms, the number of passengers relying on gate agents for help would likely decline.

She says a challenge for mobile rebooking is creating software to provide two-way communication between passengers and airlines.

“There are a lot of algorithms and pricing models that enable options from a pricing perspective and are challenging from a backend perspective,” she said. “Baby steps need to be taken, why can’t airlines show passengers, ‘here are alternate flights, here are the statuses of these flights,’ then go talk to an agent from there? These steps help prime passengers to make a decision.”

Last winter, more than 136,000 U.S. flights were cancelled, and Wellman said the industry has learned to help minimize stress by cancelling flights ahead of time, rather than waiting until the last minute to do so.

Delta is doing a good job at helping customers rebook, but in general larger carriers take longer to provide rebooking options,” Wellman said. “It takes them longer to provide newer functionality on mobile. But Delta’s user experience in its app for rebooking is easy to navigate in my opinion.”

A majority of respondents, 85%, said they’d prefer to have multiple rebooking options sent to their phones so they can pick the itinerary that works best for them, instead of the airline, gate agent or service provider automatically assigning a new flight. More than 93% of travelers would also value being asked about their rebooking preferences when they first buy their ticket.

Other findings include more than 75% saying they want the relevant parties affected by their flight cancellation or delay, such as hotels and ground transportation, automatically alerted when travel plans change. The party receiving the largest percentage is airlines for a connecting flight at 80%, followed by hotels at 45%, and updates sent to friends and family at 43%.

See the full report below.

Download (PDF, 328KB)

Photo Credit: Crews work to de-ice a plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. digitonin / Flickr