If you aren’t familiar with Aldi, they are the very successful German supermarket chain that has expanded into many other countries with a simple model. They stock about 1,400 popular food items (a typical grocery store has 30,000).

More fundamentally, Aldi concentrates on selling core, high-volume grocery products, like ketchup, cereal and coffee. Want a choice? Forget it. By offering a single brand, usually a private label in a single size, Aldi executives say they can substantially undercut conventional retailers on 90% of the products the store sells.

It is not often you see a mainstream publication doing an side by side analysis of various airline websites, so well done to  Christopher Hinton for getting this published: The title of the piece was Airline Web sites battle it out for fewer customers and some of it I don’t agree with, but quotes like the one below really got me thinking about the Aldi analogy.

But industry observers and Web designers say the major network carriers are falling behind their low-cost rivals in producing dynamic, easy-to-use sites that help establish customer loyalty. That’s a problem because the number of business and leisure travelers using the Internet to find and book airfare has grown substantially.

Well not this industry observer (ie. me), but I saw The Economist picked up on the article and followed pretty much the same line about network carrier websites being dinosaurs. But back to my Aldi comparison, and my reference to the number of items stocked; consider all the Origin and Destination combinations between a network carrier website and an LCC point to point only website. Then look at the photo and imagine you put a shopper at the entry to an Aldi supermarket and a traditonal supermarket. The two shoppers have a race to see who finds the box of Crispy Oats first. Clearly the Aldi shopper will win. It is quicker and easier to find something when you are in a shop with less choice, assuming of course that the shop stocks that item. The same applies to airline websites. Not to say that network carriers can ignore user experience; in fact all the majors I know personally do take it very seriously, and tend to do a pretty good job at it. But they definitely have a tougher job on their hands with so much more product on the shelf, so to speak.

I’ll add a few more quotes from the article and my comments on each.

“In general these days, if I’m doing something fast and domestic, I feel more comfortable on the budget airlines,” said Jill Walters, a 35-year old technology director in Raleigh, N.C.

OK, So this is exactly what I was saying about simple – ie. domestic. Let’s see how she fares when she wants to book a connecting flight.

Walters said her favorite Web sites belong to Southwest Airlines and AirTran because they are easiest to navigate and don’t add last-minute fees.

Now are we talking website ease of use, or are we actually talking about a preference for an airline overall because their business model is less a la carte pricing?

Among the network carriers, she prefers the Delta Air Lines site. US Airways and Continental run second, but they don’t show the final price until the end, and they don’t show return flights until a departing flight is selected, which is sometimes important, she said.

I don’t even know if this is true, as I thought the practice of not showing final pricing until the end had disappeared well over a year ago, at least amongst any reputable carriers. I spent most of my time working outside of the USA, and there are plently of people focussed on writing about that market, so I won’t talk too much more on that, except to say the point about not showing inbound until outbound is selected is almost certainly a fare filing issue as they are probably filing round trip itinerary fares rather than one way combinable. Fare filing policy is nothing to do with the airline website.

“I really hate it when I can’t see all the flight options or it gives me prepackaged itineraries,” she said. “I have also really started to dislike sites that don’t include the taxes and fees, as it makes it hard to compare.”

Pushing packages to a person only wanting flights is definitely a bad idea, but she doesn’t mention which airline she is referring to. And not including taxes is similar to my point above – you’ll never ever hear me defending that practice as any website doing it will just drive passengers to the OLTA channel.