Why Virgin America's Ex-CEO Hates Airline Websites

Airlines seek to drive as many sales as possible to their own websites for one simple reason: It helps reduce the costs associated with selling airfares. But that doesn’t mean the airlines have any special talent for elegant e-commerce.

“Many airlines’ home pages are horrible,” says Fred Reid, former chief executive of Virgin America. Even the giants of the industry tend toward cluttered, confusing websites introduced by home pages in desperate need of redesign. ”They look like war zones,” he told the attendees of a conference sponsored by Skift, a travel news and marketing startup. “They create tension.”

Some carriers even try to sell cruises from the home page, not just airline flights, Reid noted, without saying which airline he was referring to. (That would be United; American has a drop-down link to its cruise sales on its home page.) “Hello, I am X [Airline],” he said, describing the visual approach. “Please step into my mess.”

Reid, the former president and chief operating officer at both Delta Air Lines and Lufthansa as well as CEO during Virgin America’s launch, also forecast the end of the era of seatback video screens. Travelers prefer to watch their own tablets and smartphones, and from an operations standpoint, the seatback screens are expensive, generate heat, burn extra fuel, and require periodic maintenance. Yet despite Reid’s prediction, airlines such as Virgin America and JetBlue have made in-seat video entertainment systems integral components of their consumer products.

Reid also encouraged anyone planning to start an airline to buy only new airplanes and to hire a full-time design director. And if he decides to give up his current career as an aviation consultant and California apple farmer to help launch a new carrier? “Shoot me,” he quipped. “With a dart gun.”

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