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Southwest dodges engines that search low fares

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / July 24, 2005

In the race for supremacy among travel search engines, there is one obstacle that none of the companies have been able to overcome.

Southwest Airlines, the top low-cost carrier in the nation, refuses to participate. It will not allow its fares to be compared with those of its competitors on any third-party consumer website.

''When you get into a display with other carriers, there's really no opportunity to display all the options available to the consumer," said Jill Howard-Allen, manager of interactive marketing at Southwest.

Without Southwest's participation, none of the emerging travel search engines, including Sidestep, Kayak, Mobissimo, and Yahoo's FareChase, can lay claim to being a definitive resource in tracking down the best air fare.

Southwest's absence is also a hindrance for consumers looking for a quick and effective way to search the air fare universe. It means they have to keep searching multiple websites to find the best deal; currently, most consumers check three to four websites before purchasing an airline ticket.

Sidestep has the closest relationship with Southwest. It carried the airline's fares on its browser search tool until the airline decided to pull them off in January. It now offers only a link to the Southwest website when a user hunts for a fare on a route served by the airline.

''They're still trying to figure out this travel search category as a whole, and wanted to treat people relatively equally and spend some time thinking about travel search before they dive in," said Phil Carpenter, a spokesman for Sidestep.

Kayak, one of the most aggressive travel search engines, is clearly frustrated by its inability to incorporate Southwest into its searches.

''Our goal is to be completely comprehensive. Our goal is to have everything," said Paul English, cofounder and chief technical officer at Kayak.

English said Southwest eventually will have to reconsider its position, as search engines snare more and more Internet travel traffic. He says Southwest is no longer always the lowest-cost option and, as a result, the airline doesn't like being compared side-by-side with other carriers.

Southwest officials say their reluctance to participate with the travel search engines is not because they fear competition.

''It's not a function of not wanting to be compared with our competitors," said Whitney Eichinger, a Southwest spokeswoman. ''We want to keep our customers coming to Southwest.com."

The Southwest officials say other websites are not capable of presenting all of Southwest's flying options to consumers in a fair and coherent way. Southwest also is determined not to relinquish control of its customers to third parties.

Southwest garnered 59 percent of its passenger revenue through online sales last year, and that increased to 63 percent in the first quarter this year. Only JetBlue Airways does better. Most of the struggling big airlines are in the 20 percent range.

Airlines want to sell tickets to customers through their websites because that's the cheapest way to service them. Southwest officials say it costs them about $1 to sell a ticket through their website, about $4 through the company's phone reservation system, and $5-$7 through a travel agent, to whom Southwest pays no commission.

Many airlines offer customers incentives to book through their websites, usually bonus frequent flier miles. Southwest stopped offering bonus credits for tickets purchased through its website in May.

Southwest has been vigilant about protecting its website turf. It sued Orbitz in May 2001 to stop the online travel agency from displaying Southwest fares, and has issued stern hands-off warnings to other websites.

''They are really the only low-cost carrier in the country that has not yet embraced travel search wholeheartedly," said Carpenter. ''Look at JetBlue, Spirit, and Frontier. All three of those carriers have long been partners of ours and strong supporters of the model. Southwest is just going to take a little more time to get there."

Contact Bruce Mohl at mohl@globe.com.

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