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Orbitz Learns From Shaky Takeoff

Severed cable and poorly timed upgrade slow new travel site's first week.

2 Min Read

Takeoff is one of the most dangerous parts of any airline trip--a message that was brought home to the nation's five largest carriers this month when the launch of their joint travel site ran into some serious turbulence.

On the day American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United launched the site, a severed MCI fiber-optic cable in Chicago slowed traffic temporarily. But the real problem came two days later when a scheduled midnight CDT site shutdown left thousands of West Coast shoppers (and some late-night shoppers in other areas) unable to reach anyone at the Orbitz call center. Orbitz scheduled the shutdown to update its Web fare specials, but neglected to put a notice on the site stating it would be down for a couple of hours. When people started calling the call center, it couldn't handle the load.

Part of the problem was a glitch in the BEA Systems Inc. WebLogic platform that Orbitz uses that made it impossible to take down half the site at a time while leaving the rest operational. BEA has already sent a patch. Orbitz also learned that midnight CDT was too early for scheduled maintenance.

But the takeoff turbulence is also the result of crowded skies, chief technology officer Alex Zoughlin says. In its first week, the site averaged 2,000 visitors a minute, 10,000 tickets a day, and $9 million in sales-four or five times what company officials had expected. Also surprising was the high percentage of first-time Internet users attracted by a media blitz promising to raffle off a free airline ticket every hour. One Internet newbie called in for every two tickets booked; they required longer sessions with customer service. Orbitz is scurrying to boost the number of staffers at its two Florida call centers from 125 to 200.

Orbitz is still well behind the volume of its biggest rival, Travelocity.com, which will open a third call center on July 2. Travelocity will employ 1,300 people in its call centers and handle about 20,000 calls a day. It relies on interactive voice-response computer telephony to route calls and corresponding travel data to agents, says senior VP of operations Russ Smith, cutting 30 seconds off the average call time of slightly less than 6 minutes.

Orbitz Rollout timeline chart

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