Responsive airline sites rapidly gaining traction in 2015

Airlines are rapidly adopting responsive booking sites, with 25% of carriers having a responsive airline site in place as of August 2015. This growth is mostly driven by smaller carriers. 13% of airlines still do not have any mobile web presence.

While passengers are always on the move, airlines have been slow to fully embrace mobile. Just 18 months ago, none of the leading airlines used responsive web design. According to the same study, nearly a quarter (22%) of airlines did not have a mobile web site all. Yet, as mobile traffic continues to grow, and Google uses mobile support as a ranking signal, airline mobile web projects are finally getting off the ground.

The 2015 data show a trend towards a unified airline site for all devices, backed by responsive web design. New site deployments are likely to be responsive, with smaller carriers jumping on the opportunity to reduce IT investment by focusing on just one application. On the other hand, the large carriers are slow to let go of their legacy desktop sites. Here, hybrid strategies are more common – with a dedicated mobile site alongside the desktop version, and native apps for iOS and Android.

Airline Mobile Web Strategy: Some Facts

These statistics are gathered from our dataset of 40 leading airlines (see data appendix). The key findings are:

  • Carrier Adoption: 87% of airlines have an optimized mobile booking site. Among these airlines,
    • 75% use dedicated mobile sites
    • 25% have a responsive airline site live
  • Passenger Experience: weighting mobile strategies by 2014 airline market share, we can see that
    • 90% of passengers traveled with a mobile-enabled carrier
    • but only 10% of passengers were served by a responsive airline site.

This discrepancy arises because small airlines are faster to adopt responsive design (graph).

Common Pitfalls of Airline Responsive Projects

The decision to “go responsive” is often motivated, at least in part, by cost considerations. And while the potential savings are very real, care must be taken not to degrade the user experience when implementing a responsive airline site. In the flexponsive experience, these pitfalls typically fall into three groups:

  1. Neglecting site performance: Poor loading times are a perennial concern with responsive sites, because code tends to complex (compared to a dedicated mobile site), and some resources may be loaded even if they are not visible. On the upside, techniques for better performance are available – but they must be used from the outset of the implementation project! Moreover, by continuously monitoring performance, airlines can reduce the risk of customizations degrading performance over time.
  2. Lack of cross-device testing: Growing smartphone penetration also means growing device diversity – from display sizes and resolutions to processing speed and browser bugs. In practice, automated cross-device testing should not only be budgeted for, but needs to be a core part of any responsive project from the outset. And responsive websites are often heavy on JavaScript, meaning that a small script loading problem can lead to a “blank screen” for the visitor, e.g. on flaky airport WiFis. Airlines need to work with the poor connectivity travelers often face.
  3. Design does not work for all form factors: Responsive airline sites can sometimes feel as if smartphones were an afterthought. An important usability principle is to prioritize the content that matters to users, and avoid wasting precious screen space through excessive banners or over-sized navigation elements. Easier said than done – it often takes live user tests on different devices to iron out the issues.

These pitfalls affect the airlines with live responsive projects to different degrees. For example, in spite of Swiss’ elegant design, the screen use on mobile is not optimal. Air Astana requires a large download, leading to poor first-load performance. And device support hiccups seem to affect nearly all players.

Examples of Responsive Airline Sites

  • Dutch flag carrier KLM is the largest airline to adopt responsive design. Their jQuery SPA is fully responsive and reasonably fast to load. Moreover, low-cost daughter company Transavia also joined the responsive fray, being the first carrier to deploy Navitaire dotRez and its mobile-friendly API
  • Within Lufthansa Group, only Swiss has gone responsive with a single-page application (SPA) built on Knockout.js. With a first load time just shy of 3 seconds, and just under 1 MB for the initial download, Swiss shows that performance and responsive design can go hand in hand
  • Responsive pioneer Virgin America and Norwegian Air Shuttle both rely on AngularJS. The single page application transitions quickly between screens. Interestingly, the Norwegians avoid images entirely on the mobile screen, reducing the initial download to about 0.5 MB
  • FlyThomasCook was first to go responsive in the UK
  • The Kazakh flag carrier Air Astana sports a responsive site with captivating imagery, built on jQuery and Bootstrap. Unfortunately, the relatively large initial download size (4.5MB) leads to a less than ideal user experience on first load

Conclusion: Responsive set to keep growing, challenges remain

Essentially all airline site relaunches in 2015 use responsive design. So the trend towards a unified front-end for all devices is quite clear, in line with the Internet overall. Presumably even the largest airlines will – in time – abandon their existing dedicated mobile sites, and the few “no-mobile” laggards may directly move to responsive design.

The challenge for travel technology will therefore be to deliver the best possible user experience, given the opportunities and constraints of the responsive framework. From a technical perspective, the issues outlined above – site performance, cross-device testing and maximizing usability for each form factor – will loom large in the next years.

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