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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Power Outage Shakes Online Travel Industry

NEW YORK -- Last week's blackout posed challenges to many businesses. But it hit the online travel industry when the companies were already grappling with the challenge of cultivating customer loyalty.

The power failure in parts of eight U.S. states and Canada raised a pressing issue for travelers: how to know when they would be able to fly.

Typically, the online travel agencies and the airlines use their web sites and wireless technology to disseminate information about cancellations and delays. During the blackout, the airlines and the three major online agencies -- Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity -- posted notices on their sites, advising customers to check the status of their flights -- which in most cases could also be done online. Most companies also allow customers to sign up to receive flight status updates and alerts about delays sent by e-mail service or text message to a wireless device.

Such services can be helpful dealing with weather-related delays.

But during the blackout, the status reports were not useful to customers with limited cellphone service or no electricity for getting online. And when it comes to rebooking flights, passengers usually wind up needing to speak to an agent, either by phone or at the airport.

Even before the blackout, a weak economy, travel jitters and unusually bad weather this summer made online travel agencies' and the airlines' response to customer-service needs a critical issue.

"When customers have a sense that there's a lot of price disparity in a certain market or a certain category, they'll do a lot of shopping around," said Philip Wolf, chief executive of PhoCusWright Inc., a Sherman, Connecticut, consulting firm that focuses on online travel."But when you get the sense that there's not a lot of price disparity, then the brand choice comes through loud and clear."

Even if price comparison is an increasingly pointless exercise for consumers, online travel shoppers still do a lot of clicking around.

According to a PhoCusWright survey done last year, two-thirds of travelers who bought airline tickets online in 2002 visited three or more Web sites before making a purchase a statistic that matches online executives' own estimates.