Online travel agencies: bad, and getting worse

There’s bad news for anyone who is considering booking a trip online: the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index from the University of Michigan finds customer satisfaction has fallen to an all-time low. The online travel industry’s aggregate scored slipped from 76 to 75 last year, a drop of 1.3 percent. It’s the lowest reading since the ACSI began tracking online travel agencies in 2002.

Here’s how the major online agencies did:

Expedia (75) – 3.8 percent
Orbitz (73) -2.7 percent
Travelocity (73) -1.4 percent

(Only Priceline is on the rise, posting an increase of one point, or 1.4 percent, to 73. That’s up 10.6 percent from 2002.)

It’s interesting to compare these numbers to the Transportation Department’s annual complaint data. (Normally, people don’t know to gripe about bad service received from an online agency, so the fact that these numbers even exist must say something about the state of online travel.)

1. Orbitz (45)
2. Travelocity (35)
3. Expedia (30)
4. Cheaptickets (22)
5. Cheapoair/Priceline (tie) (16)

Why is customer satisfaction on the skids? The survey offers a few theories.

Online travel is an industry in flux. The “big three” online travel aggregator sites – Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity – once had a competitive edge on all fronts. They offered the convenience of booking air, hotel and car from one site with search capabilities and comparative information not offered elsewhere. And, they were offer able to offer discounted pricing not available directly from travel supplier sites. But this is no longer the case.

At the same time, customers are holding online agencies responsible for bad travel experiences, even when they aren’t directly to blame.

Fulfillment is out of the control of these companies. They may sell a ticket and provide excellent service, but if a change needs to be made or there is a problem with the schedule, they may bear the brunt of consumers’ ire, instead of or in addition to the airlines, hotels, or car rental companies involved. These aggregators are trying to innovate with traveler updates, travel support, and unique features like Travelocity’s Road Trip Wizard, but it may not be enough to stave off eventual marginalization.

Marginalization. That’s another way of saying one of these online agencies will go “buh-bye.”