TORONTO — Aeroplan will spend next year developing its Web portal to replicate the kinds of customer service features it offers through its call centre.

The company, which is trying to evolve from a frequent flier program

to a more complex reward and loyalty firm, has already seen 25 per cent of its prize redemptions move online since relaunching its site in May 2002. Right now the company only offers bookings for flights on Air Canada, its former parent company, but in 2004 the site’s functionality will be improved to allow bookings on Star Alliance partners like Lufthansa and United Airlines.

Andre Hebert, Aeroplan’s vice-president of IT, said the company was approximately 75 per cent of the way through the latest phase of its Web site overhaul, which was prompted in part by Air Canada’s decision to divest itself of Aeroplan during a 2001 restructuring process. To drive home how far it has come, Hebert showed a screen capture of the old site from 2000, which included a series of relatively static pages buried within the Air Canada portal.

“”As you can tell, it was a pretty boring customer experience,”” he told an audience of executives hosted by Blast Radius, the marketing firm which assisted Aeroplan in its overhaul. “”We’re not proud of that at all.””

Hebert said the portal project got off a rocky start — the first planning session coincidentally occurred on Sept. 12, 2001, the day after terrorists attacked the United States. Since then the airline industry has seen financial hard times through SARS and the Iraq war, among other things. “”It’s amazing we were still allowed to invest several million dollars into a Web site,”” he said.

Blast Radius helped Aeroplan rework its navigation, site architecture and content, grouping topical data together. Hebert said the old site had about 20 pages, while the new portal has about 1,000 pages split between French and English content.

“”Obviously reward programs are a big part of an airline’s success,”” said Brett Turner, executive vice-president of client relations at Toronto-based Blast Radius. “”They’ve realized the Web can bring member services to life with the lowest possible investment.””

IBM Canada assisted in the project by modifying Aeroplan’s legacy CICS and TPF mainframes and now hosts the company’s portal, but its middleware is what makes the difference, according to Big Blue business unit executive Doug Leitch. “”By itself, a portal doesn’t do anything,”” he said.

Besides offering transactional capabilities, Hebert said Aeroplan is trying to make its portal a self-serve destination for travel research, account management and problem resolutions. The company’s busiest day of the year is Jan. 2, when he said many people come back from the holiday season preparing their next vacation. Although Aeroplan employs about 1,200 people at its call centre, it doesn’t nearly handle the load of potential inquiries from Aeroplan’s 6.2 million customers, according to Hebert. He said the portal has helped reduce wait times on the phone from 15 minutes to five.

The portal has also allowed call centre agents to focus on more complex customer requests, he added, since customers can usually handle simply bookings over the Web. It also means they can book on their own schedule.

“”You’d be surprised at the number of bookings that happen after midnight,”” Hebert said. “”They’re not people living in Asia or something, either. They’re from Canada.””

So far Aeroplan’s portal is being used to book 1,000 flights a day, and the company has collected close to one million e-mail addresses. Hebert said the company will make increased use of IBM’s SurfAid analytics tool to track visits to the site by Aeroplan member numbers.


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