Online travel portal takes shape but slowly

Air New Zealand has scaled back its involvement in the Zuji online travel portal to that of 'charter associate' rather than full partner, as the project finally sees the light of day nearly two years after its launch.

Air New Zealand has scaled back its involvement in the Zuji online travel portal to that of "charter associate" rather than full partner, as the project finally sees the light of day nearly two years after its launch.

Zuji is a regional travel portal that allows fliers to pick and chose flight times and prices within the Asia Pacific region. It is a joint venture of 16 of airlines in Asia-Pacific including Cathay Pacific Airways, Qantas Airway and Singapore Airlines.

Air New Zealand spokesman Cameron Hill says the soft launch in Australia and Singapore has shown some increase in interest for Air New Zealand flights, but not much at this stage.

"Initially it's very small but we hope to build that over the next two years." Hill says the New Zealand end of the portal will launch in six to nine months' time.

Users of the service will be able to marry together flights, hotel bookings and car rental deals as well as compare prices across airlines. Prices for a flight from Sydney to Auckland range from $A399 to $A1341 as an example.

Air New Zealand this week announced cheap domestic airfares and the demand was so high on its website - with around 30,000 users trying to log on during the first day - that it crashed.

However, president of the Travel Agents Association (TAANZ) James Langton doesn't think online bookings will attract much attention and isn't concerned at all by the formation of a regional travel portal.

"In the US where the airlines haven't being paying travel agents commission for several years and have been trying to drive consumers to the internet booking model, today only 10% of passengers in the US book via the internet."

Langton says any airline that thinks it can move customers to an online booking regime in large numbers is "dreaming".

"In this country that hasn't been any major move to the internet at all. The travel industry hasn't lost any business to date."

Otago University professor of tourism Geoff Kearsley believes there will be a shift to online booking, but not nearly as rapidly or as fully as some of the airlines believe.

"Travel agents are moving towards fulfilling a more advisory role anyway, but I don't think there will be a huge shift to the internet in the short term for a number of reasons."

One of those reasons is the old problem with e-commerce B2C sites: having someone to call if something goes wrong.

"I research my travel online and know a great deal more about the trip before I book it, but I always book through an agent because they invariably know more than I do and know their way around it all better and so I have someone to blame if I need to."

Kearsley says there will be more movement in the business sector and there will be a percentage of "bright young things" who are comfortable with booking online, but they will be in the minority for the foreseeable future.

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