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7/29/2005
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Delta Seeks To Convert Browsers Into Buyers With Revamped Web Site

The new site lets customers reserve a flight for 24 hours before purchasing.

With consumers increasingly looking to make purchases online, many businesses are coming to the conclusion that they need sparkling new sites that make it simpler for people to conduct business. Delta Air Lines is one of them, and on Monday goes live with a long-planned relaunch of Delta.com that's designed to entice more airfare shoppers to buy their tickets on the site, and to give them quick access to the tools for managing their travel experiences.

Like all of its competitors, the troubled carrier--which lost $5.2 billion last year--is trying to drive as many airfare purchases as possible to its site, saving it the $4 to $5 in fees it pays for each flight segment when travel agents book tickets using one of the industry's global distribution systems. "This is our least expensive distribution channel," Carolyn Rak, managing director of online sales and services, says of Delta.com.

Delta has made slow but steady progress--its Web site now generates 24% of all ticket sales, compared with 18% in 2004. But the old Delta.com, which has been unchanged for five years, was making it tough to reach the airline's goal of 45% of tickets sold at the site by early 2007. Rak says passengers have frequently bailed from online transactions for a number of reasons, such as the inability to reserve a ticket for 24 hours before finalizing a purchase--something they can do by booking through the airline's call center. That's why Delta has added 24-hour no-penalty cancellation capabilities to the overhauled site, and that will allow passengers some time to shop for better deals and take advantage of the site's new low-price guarantee.

Delta also has simplified navigation features, such as new "roll-over drop-down" menus that display subsequent links by hovering over tabs--an increasingly common online feature that prevents visitors from clicking on multiple links to find what they're looking for. On the back end, Rak says Delta is boosting server capacity to avoid the kind of snafu it experienced earlier this year when it introduced a lower-priced fair structure and the resulting traffic overwhelmed the site, making it inaccessible for the better part of a day.

Delta has been working on the site redesign for 18 months, having conducted extensive focus groups and usability studies to find out what customers wanted from it. The airline discovered four primary tasks customers conducted on Delta.com: managing their Sky Miles frequent-flier accounts; booking airfares; viewing itineraries and printing boarding passes; and checking flight status. The site's new design brings those tasks front and center, removing much of the information clutter that made tools harder to find.

At least one analyst who got an early look thinks Delta's work has paid off with a site that will be out in front of the competition. "As far as airline Web sites, [Delta's new site] is one of the most stylish and inviting ones that I've seen," says JupiterResearch analyst Diane Clarkson. "They're responding to what consumers are telling us they want to see in a site where they book their travel." Clarkson's research indicates that 57% of travel shoppers say that low-price guarantees will entice them to make purchases online, and that 38% want it to be easier for them to make changes to flight plans. But Clarkson says the site is playing catch-up in some ways, too--for instance, Delta was one of few airlines whose site didn't enable online check-in, a new feature of the revamped site.

One area Delta chose not to address was personalization. While other airlines have been tweaking their sites to tap customer histories to deliver personalized views and offers, Delta has opted to tackle that later. Rak says the new site's architecture creates a foundation to do so in the near future.

Delta will start transitioning to the new site over the weekend, several servers at a time, and by Monday morning the old Delta.com will be history. Rak says E-mail marketing and national advertising campaigns will launch in mid-August to raise awareness of the new site.

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