Why American Airlines doesn't fly online, and what they should do about it

20 November 2009

Most of us struggle through arse-backward websites because we have little choice, other than to give up and check out the competition. Dustin Curtis, a UI designer and frustrated American Airlines customer, took a different direction:

Dear American Airlines,

I redesigned your website's front page, and I'd like to get your opinion.

I’m a user interface designer. I travel sometimes. Recently, I had the horrific displeasure of booking a flight on your website, aa.com. The experience was so bad that I vowed never to fly your airline again.

How did this happen? If I was running a company with the distinction and history of American Airlines, I would be embarrassed - no ashamed - to have a website with a customer experience as terrible as the one you have now. How does your CEO justify treating customers this way? Why does your board of directors approve of this? Your website 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.

Curtis went ahead and provided AA with a redesigned website that didn't look like a jumble sale in a threshing machine. In case you haven't looked recently, this is what the current AA homepage looks like:

Bitterwallet - American Airlines... before
And this is what Curtis presented:
Bitterwallet - American Airlines - after
Perhaps unexpectedly, American Airlines responded. Well, not officially - a member of their web design team contacted Curtis anonymously, and while admitting that he was entirely right in that the AA website is a dog's dinner, there were very good reasons for this. Here's the meat of the reply that explains why the site is a mess, but you can read the rest for yourself here:

The problem with the design of AA.com... lies less in our competency and more with the culture and processes employed here at American Airlines.

The group running AA.com consists of at least 200 people spread out amongst many different groups, including, for example, QA, product planning, business analysis, code development, site operations, project planning, and user experience. We have a lot of people touching the site, and a lot more with their own vested interests in how the site presents its content and functionality.

... AA.com is a huge corporate undertaking with a lot of tentacles that reach into a lot of interests. It’s not small, by any means.

The designer goes on to explain he has plenty of ideas filed away and will be introducing some of them to the site over time, but fundamentally such a complicated organisation can't produce a simple website that satisfies all their requirements. But as Curtis explains:

Customer experience is the new brand. I'm not referring to a brand as a logo and a typeface. I'm referring to the new kind of brand, the one is formed by the entire experience of a customer's interaction. That experience gets branded into his or her memory and leaks into the buzz of modern culture. If you can't make a good customer experience from start to finish, you've failed to generate brand value that will attract customers to come back for repeat business and tell their friends to come back, too.

Of course there is an argument that Curtis was arrogant in the extreme to assume this was simply a matter of incompetent design, when the fact is American Airlines is a global organisation striving to satisfy a catalogue of requirements and conditions. There a second, more persuasive argument that states the first argument is entirely irrelevant.

Internal politics and pressures will threaten to compromise the usability of any website produced by a well establish, far reaching, multi-stranded business, but - and this is the real nub of it - nobody using it cares. Whatever the issues are, the customer isn't interested that the experience would be much better if there weren't so many conflicting requirements behind the scenes. They want a site that is simple, intuitive and gives them what they want. If they get it, everyone benefits. If they don't, there's a good chance they won't bother.

[Dustin Curtis]

TOPICS:   Travel   Technology


  • SJT
    I agree, AA.com is a shocking site, and a pain in the ass to book flights on....
  • Gunn
    Happens to a lot of sites, it probably started off quite simple but feature creep sets in and the end result is a mess, then one day you just decide to start from scratch, and repeat the process, good thing too keeps people in jobs :)
  • almost w.
    You missed the part where the AA designer was then fired for revealing corporate secrets. http://dustincurtis.com/incompetence.html
  • whogivesa
    Perhaps he could apply his skills to the new-look Quidco
  • Mike
    Should be happy, he did ask them to fire their design team
  • WouldRatherWalk
    Following almost witty's comment there, the AA designer is also going to write a guest article for Curtis and "reveal his true identity" in the next week or so.
  • Inactive
    Agree 100%. with almost witty. Where did I read; If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
  • Mike
    @Inactive or If something works ok dont improve it?
  • Mike H.
    Toss airline and a toss website. Delta all the way.
  • me
    tbh I thought the second design looked crap anyway - looks like one of those pages you get when you type in something as .com instead of .co.uk etc and it gives you a search engine/link page.
  • Monkey_Boy
    @me I disagree. A decent neural search engine should be able to pick up stuff. In the "Destination guide" You should be able to put in "Heathrow" or "LHR" or "London" or "London Heathrow" and so on and it should just pick it up (Try using www.thetrainline.com - it works in the same way) And in the date*, you should be able to put "12/10/2009" or "10th December 2009" or "10am 10th December" It's not rocket science. Simples :-p
  • Monkey_Boy
    the * was because it'll clearly be in American format
  • Beer
    Wow, nice read man. Thanks for sharing! However I'm having trouble with ur rss feed. Does anyone else have problems with the rss?
  • boosting V.
    Good web pages, I just bookmarked it and might be coming back again so retain up the perfect deliver the results! When it comes down to it I feel Alec Baldwin mentioned it perfect while in the Glenn-Garry movie. A.I.D.A attention, interest, decision and action. I am going to spare you guys the complete speech exactly where he cusses everyone out.

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