Why Dragonair Is a Bit Flighty

By Ian Cocoran

Throughout Chinese history, the dragon has been revered as an ancient symbol of mystical power and strength. By locking it into a logo and embellishing it as a brand, Dragonair hopes to weave the spirit of the legendary beast into the very fabric of its business. However, in transferring the concept to the web, has the company risked interpreting the symbol of national pride as simply hot air? At first glance this multi-lingual portal portrays a subtle blend of East and West, which nicely reflects the origins of the company. The rich red and white hues mingle with an easily navigable web design and help convey a functionality that one would expect to be underpinned by China's premier point of competitive advantage -- value for money.

Unfortunately, the company's brand message of "The Beauty of Flying" cannot be aligned to "the beauty of buying," as the website fails to recognize the importance of online booking, a significant exclusion given the gaggle of airlines currently offering the facility of self-service. Although Dragonair does cater for its frequent flyers by providing online check-in, customers can only use it if they are departing major cities. Either there is still some work to be done in aligning available web technology with the company's logistical capabilities, or the marketing team needs a wake-up call.

This point is underpinned by Dragonair's "Airfare Planner," which attempts to provide prospective passengers with an indicative suite of price points. Sadly, the flaws in such a concept are as easily recognized as those in a one-legged rickshaw puller. Some are even evangelized in Dragonair's rider on the page, which states "Special fares are offered to certain markets on certain seasons, flights and dates." In other words, go speak to your travel agent if you want to book a ticket.

Despite the obvious downside of Dragonair's web proposition, there is still plenty to be positive about; one should never be lulled into thinking that it's wise to wake a sleeping dragon with a bucket of cold water. For instance, Dragonair's holiday pages are extremely well presented and very eager to please, while the premier account and frequent flyer programs smack of an Asian drive for quality that is now so sadly lacking in many Western airlines.

The importance of running airfreight out of Asia is not lost on the company either. Dragonair's Cargo section offers a comprehensive and concise guide to its airfreight business, detailing everything from the obligatory conditions of carriage to the size of the containers used and the available space on each aircraft. The technological failings return, however, on the "shipment status" enquiry page, which appears to lack the functionality of a complete track-and-trace guide (FedEx and UPS can sleep soundly for a bit longer yet).

So while Dragonair.com may be a little retarded where it counts, it's clear that the company means business. The technological weaknesses on the World Wide Web will not last forever given both the company's blue-chip backers and the growth in the Asian economy. After all, we are talking about an organization that has won the "best airline China" award for a fourth consecutive year. With that type of position in the world's most populous market, it shouldn't be a surprise to read that passenger numbers are soaring. Sure, Dragonair still has work to do before it can really start to leverage the benefits of online trading, but let's not kid ourselves that this dragon is asleep. Indeed, it is very much awake and just like the people it represents, it's learning very fast.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.