How Users Perceive The Ethical Posture Of Low Cost Carrier Websites

Chris Barry, Mairéad Hogan and Ann Torres


In keeping with the overall conference theme, this paper explores how ICT, in the low-cost carriers (LCC) sector, is yielding customer service that is moving ‘backwards’ rather than ‘forwards’. The paper investigates ethical issues around the design of certain LCC Websites in the airline industry in Ireland. The study assesses user views of how airlines are delivering sales-focussed and non-sales generating services. User views on ancillary charges, regulation, and how favourably disposed users feel towards LCCs are also explored.

Global deregulation of the airline industry has resulted in the emergence of highly competitive markets with intense price competition (Kahn 2002). The resulting low-cost model has been very success as travellers eschew legacy airlines in pursuit of low, ‘no-frills’ fares (Alamdari and Fagan 2005), allowing LCCs to rapidly increase market share (de Neufville 2006). Traditional customer service has been jettisoned by many LCCs, rationalized on the strength of low airfares. The study uses a mixed-method approach, utilizing quantitative and qualitative techniques. Three research techniques were used: usability testing, verbal protocols and focus groups. Usability testing (amongst ninety-six participants) largely examined ease of use, seven verbal protocols explored the disposition of users towards the Websites and five focus groups were mediated to discuss in more detail issues arising from the usability tests and verbal protocols. Aer Arann, Aer Lingus, bmibaby and Ryanair were the subject airlines of this study.

The quantitative findings from usability tests (Torres, Hogan and Barry 2009) were conclusive – users were able to quickly and effectively reach a ‘committal point’, where they are psychologically committed to purchase flights. Other well-designed features included stunning route maps, sophisticated destination and schedule information, easy to see ‘initial’ prices and quick systems response times. In contrast, interactions with non-sales activities were troublesome. Finding the ‘final’ price was highly problematic. Making complaints proved to be a major difficulty and many abandoned the task in frustration. The availability and visibility of contact information was discovered to be utterly inadequate and in focus groups users were strongly convinced airlines simply did not wish to be contacted on non-sales matters. Only Aer Arann were compliant with the European Union’s recent directions on the provision of contact information. Two of the four airlines, Ryanair and Aer Lingus, supply only a postal address and fax number. In contrast, certain features and design decisions in the post-committal process are being used to: obscure the final price; force users to seek out opt-out buttons; and compel users to inadvertently choose items like priority boarding and travel insurance. Participants in study groups were unanimous that such features were intentional design decisions.

Focus group and verbal protocol sessions revealed high levels of cynicism towards LCCs. Aer Arann and bmibaby were viewed more benignly than Ryanair and Aer Lingus. While both the latter airlines rated poorly in terms of customer service, participants expected lower standards of service from Ryanair. A number of participants reflected on their dissapointment with Aer Lingus from whom they “hoped” for a better level of service. Tellingly, one participant traded poor customer service with price – “unless it is cheap, it is not acceptable”. Others believed that once the flights were cheap, the attitude and methods used by the airline were irrelevant – “most people have no ethics if they get cheap flights” and that what was acceptable varied depending on the price. Some participants were willing to pay a supplement for better service. Many in focus groups felt poor service would untimately harm the reputations of LCCs.

Significant antipathy was expressed towards Ryanair who were described as “cut throat and ruthless” offering “less service”. One participant stated that “with Ryanair you have to check everything” – a recurring sentiment that the airline routinely ambushes users with unexpected charges or unsolicited ‘services’. Many actually read terms and conditions for Ryanair because they felt that they would be “caught out”. The central concerns amongst users were unclear pricing, pop-ups, inacessible offers, hard-to-find contact information and inadequate complaints procedures. Distinctly, such features and aspects of Ryanair’s Website are consistent with the notion of ‘intentional deception’ in Deception Theory where an agent manipulates information to influence a target’s behaviour (Johnson, Grazioli, Jamal and Berryman 2001; Grazioli and Jarvenpaa 2003; Mingers and Walsham 2008).

Despite cynicism and distrust most participants flew regularly with LCCs. This contrasts with much literature on trust that emphasise its importance in Website design (Roy, Dewit and Aubert 2001; Grabner-Kraeuter 2002; Gefen and Straub 2003; Wang and Emurian 2005) and claims that un-satisified users will not return (Kim and Stoel 2004; Mavlanova, Benbunan-Fich and Kumar 2008).

Following an EU-wide investigation conducted by the European Consumer Affairs Commissioner, that found widespread ‘unfair and misleading’ practices, the Parliament issued a directive to end ambiguous practices regarding airport taxes, additional charges and ‘opt-out’ features (European_Parliament 2008). Despite such regulatory attention, LCCs have recently made many new ‘innovative’ changes to the booking process which is now cluttered with disaggregated products that users need to re-assemble, to construct a flight of infinite variety and all predicated on the user, by obligation and via self-service, spending significant time and effort.

Structured and object-oriented methods, the most widely used IS development approaches (Barry and Lang 2003), have their origins in scientific research and are of a positivist tradition. They ‘assume’ an ethical posture on the part of IS/IT professionals. The authors would argue this supposition has become unsafe and ethical guidelines and frameworks in IS design; corporate, professional IS/IT and marketing codes of ethics; and ethics in the IS and marketing curricula, need to be re-visited.

This paper presents evidence of shared user perceptions that certain firms are using Web technologies to: conceal pricing; compel users to make unintended choice; and inhibit customer service. While such practices might be considered more subtle than outright immoral activities such as identity fraud or on-line scams, they are just as concerning because they call into question the ethical posture of known firms, managers and professionals. The research reveals an ethical void between the normative view and actual practice in Website design.


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