Skyscanner Shows Tenacity to Overcome Challenges Selling Airline Tickets on Mobile

A few years ago, Skyscanner and other travel price-comparison search brands risked losing relative popularity. Consumers were switching to mobile devices, and metasearch brands don’t make as much money on mobile as a rule. But new e-commerce design tricks may catapult Skyscanner and its peers into more relevant positions again.

Norwegian, Singapore Airlines, Russia’s S7, and Virgin Atlantic will “soon” try to display their products via a new so-called “direct booking” interface on Skyscanner. Consumers will see airline branded fares, such as basic economy versus premium economy.

The contrast of shopping for flights on a phone versus booking lodging is remarkable. When it comes to shopping for and reserving hotels and short-term rentals, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Vrbo, and others have enabled consumers for years to reserve lodging, seeing various options for room types and upgrades, without having to leave their sites and apps. Yet plane tickets remain hard to shop for on mobile devices.

Skyscanner and its rivals like Kayak, Wego, and Qunar struggle to sell flights mobile devices for a few reasons. These metasearch brands hand shoppers over to airlines to complete their bookings, but consumers tend to hate the switch in user interfaces on mobile devices. (Norwegian saw a 185 percent rise in how many Skyscanner shoppers bought tickets by using the new interface that keeps them within Skyscanner’s site and app to make their purchases, a source said.)

Metasearch companies have also struggled to sync with the tech systems of airlines. That’s hindered them from providing the full branding and array of product choices on mobile screens the way airline’s own branded sites and online travel agency sites offer.

Today, most airline products, such as seat selection fees and access to onboard Wi-Fi, can’t be bought on the travel metasearch brands. Many airlines have created these so-called fare families — where airlines bundle tickets along with extras like free checked bags in a total price — as a marketing trick to encourage people to spend more or, to use industry parlance, give travelers better value.

“We’re trying to help airlines drive more profitable bookings,” said Cat King, commercial director. “We know the ‘basic economy,’ unbundled fare is often unprofitable for airlines. We want to make sure we’re doing our absolute level best to drive consumers to see the value of the bundled products. It’s a traveler-first play.”

Skyscanner has long promised to solve these problems on mobile. It promised in 2017 to soon offer “instant booking,” where travelers buy their plane tickets without leaving the sites or apps of metasearch companies like Skyscanner. Last October it promised to do it by December. This week, it has begun offering it with Aeroflot and Westjet via a service it calls “direct booking.”

skyscanner direct booking

An illustration of Skyscanner’s so-called “direct booking” interface which shows different types of plane tickets. Source: Skyscanner.

Intriguingly, Skyscanner has taken a “vendor-led approach” and has tapped travel technology company Travelport to power the results for its so-called direct booking effort. That’s notable because, unlike most rivals, Skyscanner pulled most of its data straight from airlines rather than via third-party aggregators.

Yet it turned out that airlines weren’t “there” yet when it comes to technology. Slow adoption by airlines of new technical standards means that the sector doesn’t yet make it possible to access comprehensive, accurate, global data using modern data exchange methods.

“Travelport is our pilot vendor,” King said. “We’ll assess how we bring a vendor solution to market. Hard-coding to an airline’s API would bring expense and scalability issues that we hope to circumnavigate by using a vendor solution.”

Going outside for help appeared to be a change in approach. As long ago as 2016, when Trip.com Group, then known as Ctrip Group, bought the Scotland-based metasearch engine for $1.74 billion, the Chinese buyers said they prized Skyscanner’s tech. In 2017, it began offering Finnair via instant booking, using direct links. But things went quiet after a while.

Hurdles for instant booking on mobile remained. One example sticking point has been the need to have secure documents and specific detailed information accessible to Skyscanner, such as a person’s passport number and their loyalty program information.

Many Ways to Improve

While online shopping might seem ubiquitous and essential, many airlines have antiquated online selling approaches, highlighting the green space that still abounds in the industry.

Skyscanner executives in 2017 aimed to create so-called airline storefronts, copying how Asian e-commerce sites sell retail goods. The idea was to move from highlighting the lowest prices to the best value. Skyscanner created types of advertising that aren’t like usual off-the-shelf display ads to help consumers become aware of brands, and it claims these ads especially appeal to younger travelers.

Other resellers see potential in other innovations. A year ago Google put all the pieces together of travel booking via metasearch together by including flights, hotels, packages, and trip-planning tools on a dedicated site and in Google Search and Google Maps.

In Japan, Price comparison service Line Travel created a loyalty program for users last year, adding another innovation that’s lacking elsewhere.

In the U.S., American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines have been pushing online booking partners to display their airfares just like they show their branded fares on their websites, and in 2019 TripActions, a corporate travel startup, began to roll out the first commercial version of the concept.

“TripActions has a fabulous integration for the corporate travel environment,” King said. “While there are parallels, there are some distinct issues in porting that model [into consumer metasearch]. That said, we’re really committed to working with those airlines in creating a solution that works in metasearch.”

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