Alaska Air's Web Makeover

Web makeovers are cause for fanfare and a round of jubilant applause (at least in the company's mind). Unfortunately for Alaska Airlines, the latest makeover leaves one cold.

Founded in 1932 in Anchorage, Alaska, Alaska Air joined with sister company Horizon Air in 1981. Alaska Air has always been something of a pioneer in web services, from its online check-in to generous mileage awards for using services via the Internet. The airline was the first to begin selling tickets by Internet in 1995 and then the first to allow passengers to check in and print boarding passes online in 1999.

It continues to be technology-friendly in its aim to ease travel burdens for busy travelers by offering flight check-in services via wireless devices such as a Palm Pilot or web-enabled cellphones -- something it started not this year but rather four years ago. For such a technologically innovative company, it is therefore surprising to find a distinct blandness in the newly renovated site. Known for its colorful, evocative natural imagery in its marketing and collateral pieces, Alaska Air's new site is noticeably sparse. Using the same dark blue for the navigation bar as its own company logo all but washes out the "Alaska Airlines" identity, leaving its mirror identity for Horizon Air (in maroon) visually more prominent.

What is refreshingly absent from the site, especially compared to its competitors, is a clutter of partner and third-party ads (such as on America West's site) and cutesy branded features such as Southwest's Ding! (with fare updates that pop up on your desktop).

What is also surprisingly absent is web access for Spanish speakers, considering the airlines' many services in and out of Mexico. Although there is an "Espanol" link, no mirror site translated for Spanish was found (such as with Southwest's "Vamanos" site).

On the navigation side, the airline's web deals offering notoriously low weekend bargains were not quite so easy to find. Although the web marketers courteously pointed out some of the tab changes (such as moving web exclusives to the "Deals" menu after the initial re-launch), it's questionable whether users of the site actually took the time to read about the changes -- or cared. The navigation should be intuitive to the casual user.

Even in using the site to look up flights and prices for its heavily promoted Mexican destination vacation deals, it was impossibly difficult to find any flights, let alone corresponding prices.

The one upside to the lack of visual images is a much faster responding site. According to a statement from the company in 2004, 40 percent of its passengers used the Internet to check on to a flight; that number presumably continues to increase. While speed and ease of use are always functional criteria for any website, let alone a site used for flight information, it would be nice if the company's marketers remember that speed and visual interest don't have to be mutually exclusive.

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