|Online Travel's Taken Off|
The growing popularity of online travel agencies, however, is seeking to soothe the weary traveler with myriad booking options and expanded customer support, all at the click of a mouse.
So what secrets does
Orbitz, formed in 2001, was the first Internet travel company to present competing prices in an unbiased chart form. One of its major competitors, Priceline ( PCLN), originally had customers bid for tickets but did not list prices in a way that let users easily compare them. The other two most popular online travel agencies were founded in 1996: Expedia ( EXPE), formed as a division of Microsoft ( MSFT); and Travelocity, as a division of Sabre Holdings ( TSG). Travelocity was the first Web site that let consumers book trips without the help of a travel agent.
Experienced HandsOrbitz was formed in 2001 by five airlines including Delta Airlines, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and American Airlines; they divested when the firm went public in 2003. It was then purchased by Cendant (now known as Avis Budget Group ( CAR)) in 2004. In June 2006, an affiliate of the private equity group Blackstone Group purchased Orbitz and sister company Travelport. Orbitz was also the first online travel agency to have its own call center, which actually watches the skies. This center is staffed around the clock by former air traffic controllers. All staffers also receive certification from the National Weather Service, so they can alert customers of adverse airport conditions that could result in departure delays and emergency travel situations. Thus, the company can keep travelers up-to-date on flight changes before they even leave for the airport. Additionally, Orbitz has a full-time journalist covering the latest in travel warnings, says Brian Hoyt, Orbitz senior director of public relations at Travelport.
Attention to DetailOrbitz has launched many other unique features that not only allow the company to stay ahead of the competition but also enhance the consumer travel experience. In December, for instance, Orbitz created a hotel notification service for its customers, lest room reservations disappear due to late arrivals or flight delays. (Hotels usually release unclaimed reserved rooms after midnight, so it's essential to give advance notification to hold a reservation.) Once Orbitz receives permission, the agents will inform the hotels of the guest's late arrival to ensure that their reservation is honored; alternately, Orbitz can contact customers and rebook them at a new hotel. In March 2006, the firm added to its OrbitzTLC Alert system, which now informs travelers' families of flight arrivals as well as departure delays. The service automatically notifies as many as six friends and family members with the updated itinerary. Travelers can then rest assured that loved ones are not spending hours at the airport waiting for them. As it's rarely possible to account for last-minute travel delays, this is a welcomed service. Travelers can also select the way for Orbitz to make contact, whether by cell phone, PDA, text messaging or email. Not surprisingly, the company prides itself on its technology. The search engine Orbitz uses was custom-designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the software was developed by airline and travel reservation pioneer ITA Software.
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