High-flying days also over for online travel sites

December 7, 2008


— Not only are Americans flying less as the economy tanks, they’re spending less time scouting the Internet for travel deals, creating an unprecedented drop in traffic for online travel agencies like Chicago-based Orbitz Worldwide Inc.

As days shorten and the air chills, consumers typically start to plan winter getaways, making October one of the busiest months of the year for Internet travel sites, analysts said.

Not this year. As consumer confidence reached historic lows in October, the volume of visitors to Web travel portals declined 14 percent, year over year, to 38.2 million, according to ComScore Inc. Web traffic fell for nearly every major airline site.

Hardest hit were the three online powerhouses that have dominated bookings for much of this decade. Web traffic at Expedia Inc. sites plunged 25 percent, to 18.2 million visitors, while LP and Orbitz saw 16 percent and 23 percent drops, respectively.

The falloff in traffic was unparalleled for the three online agencies, which grew by leaps and bounds during the economic slowdown that followed the Sept. 11 attacks as many consumers for the first time turned to the Internet to unearth bargains.

Anticipating tougher times ahead, Orbitz last month announced plans to reduce its U.S. work force by 10 percent by the end of the year.

While Orbitz has predicted that its bookings would remain weak through early 2009, it should benefit eventually as consumers take advantage of cheaper airfares and hotel rooms, as well as a new feature that promises refunds if prices drop after airline tickets have been purchased, said Brian Hoyt, a company spokesman.

“It’s an incredible time to travel if you have discretionary income,” he added. “You may have seen a dip in bookings, but there are opportunities for online travel agencies to help connect suppliers with consumers.”


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