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3/4/2003
02:07 PM
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Technology Takes To The Air

Delta Air Lines' low-cost digital alternative offers ticket kiosks and screens on the backs of seats. Will it fly financially?

Song also is breaking with convention at the ticket counter. Most airlines place their self-service kiosks across the hall from the ticket counter or off to the side. Additionally, they have significantly more staffed ticket counters than they do kiosks. Song does the opposite. It has more kiosks than people, and it places them so that they're convenient for passengers to use. "A lot of airlines have kiosks, but if they have four, it doesn't help. There are lines to get to them," Mapes says.

When passengers approach Song's ticket counters, a customer-service representative greets them, asks what they need to do, and sends them to the quickest, easiest place to get the job done--whether that's a kiosk, a person, or a phone bank with a live connection to the Song call center. "If they're given the choice of a person versus a kiosk, they're going to go to the person--until they try a kiosk and see how much faster it is," Mapes says.

Song Airlines' Seat-Back Video Screen. Photo by Sacha Lecca.

Seat-back video screens let passengers play games, rent movies, and watch satellite TV programs.
Online dealings with the airline also leverage unique technology. Developed internally by Delta Technology, Song's Web site helps passengers get the lowest possible fares, which range from $79 to $299. For example, if a passenger enters his itinerary on the Web site and receives a fare of $129, the site suggests ways to lower the fare, such as traveling on a different day or at a different time.

One of the major goals of the Web site is to encourage customers to change their behavior from buying their tickets from a travel agent or online booking engine to buying them directly at www.flysong.com. Song will continue to sell through travel sites such as Travelocity, but it recognizes that direct distribution is the most profitable and wants to encourage customers to use that method. "If we don't provide you with simple, honest access to low fares at Flysong.com, you won't come there," Mapes says. "No other airlines handhold you and promote what you can do to get a lower fare. That's why people don't trust airlines."

Song hopes to earn passenger trust, and it's seeking customer input for its decision making. The Web site lets passengers vote services and products on and off the airline. During the flights, Song will leverage its seat-back screens to gather and analyze data on its passengers. "It's the equivalent of a flying focus group," Mapes says. "It helps us stay in touch with customers and find out what they want."

The airline plans to ask customers to vote on the type of food, snacks, or beverages they want on their next flights. And Song plans to partner with other companies for market research or advertising. "Say a spirits company wanted to try a new infused liquor," Mapes says. "We can get real-time information for them with customers who have three hours on a plane. We want customers and employees to tell us constantly how to make things better."

One plan is to cache specific Web pages that appeal to passengers who want to shop and let them visit those pages and buy things during their flight. Song won't charge customers to shop, but the application still may be profitable to the airline. "Say [American Express] wanted to solicit new card members. We would make money through partners who want access to our customers," Mapes says.

Oddly, the initial plans don't call for offering Internet access on planes, because early research of Song's target customers indicates that it's not a fundamental requirement for their flight, Mapes says. Internet access is part of the on-board technology system, though. And if Song is as nimble as it claims, adding Net access should be quick and easy--once passengers vote to have it.

Photos by Sacha Lecca

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