Advertisement Best or Worst Airline Website?

I remember when American launched the current version of its website, on June 22, 1998. On that first day, I reported that visitors to what American was already heavily advertising as "The most popular airline site on the Web!" were greeted with the following:

We are currently in the process of upgrading and have temporarily taken the site offline. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.


In the meantime, if you require assistance with reservations and ticketing, call AA reservations in the U.S. at 1-800-433-7300. Please try our web site again in a few hours you will discover an online travel resource that's built to work for you. We think you'll be pleased with some of the exciting new features our site has to offer.

But those were the Internet's wild, wild west days, when website launches routinely overpromised and under-delivered. In the ensuing years, the site has been a model of stability and, occasionally, innovation.

What brings this to mind is this week's column by Cliff Kuang on the Fast Company website, entitled "American Airlines Web Site: The Product of a Self-Defeating Design Process." The article quotes a graphic designer as follows: "If I was running a company with the distinction and history of American Airlines, I would be embarrassed—no ashamed—to have a Web site with a customer experience as terrible as the one you have now ... Your Web site is abusive to your customers, it is limiting your revenue possibilities, and it is permanently destroying the brand and image of your company in the mind of every visitor." The designer imputes the site's shortcomings to the company's internal politics—the design-by-committee syndrome—and even goes so far as to propose a simple, clean redesign by way of counterexample.

It's food for thought.

I use American's website regularly, and I've often found myself thinking that it seemed like a lackluster effort, especially for a company that self-promotes as a leader in technology.

But then I've had the same thought about Google's stripped-down, no-frills user interface. And notwithstanding Google's plain-Jane look, its search functionality makes it an indispensible tool in my work and personal life, as it is for hundreds of millions of others. In that context, my design quibbles seem petty and irrelevant.

In the same way, I've come to accept on the basis of its sheer functionality.

I can access my AAdvantage mileage balance reasonably quickly. Booking a flight is about as straightforward as it is on other airlines' sites. I can get to the company's latest press releases or frequent flyer promotions in just a few keystrokes. In short, it works.

But that just means that's functionality dovetails reasonably well with my particular needs. And my needs, like my taste in graphic design, may be wildly atypical.

So I'm closing with a question: Does work for you? How could it be improved? Is it best in class? Worst? Somewhere in between?

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