Take a Ride in the Airline Time Machine

PHOTO: An archive image of American Airlines website from 2005, shows low airfare compared to recent prices.

Hey, want to go to Europe? How does about $400 to Dublin sound? That's the round-trip price including all taxes and fees and yes, it is on an airline you've actually heard of (Delta).

Just one problem: The fare was only available back in 2009. I know because I just reviewed our historical archives plus the front pages of the airline's website as they existed back in 2009. How'd I see that? An Internet time capsule known as WayBack.

Think of WayBack as something of a website time machine. Google "WayBack Machine" and click on a world of 240 billion website pages dating back to the Dawn of the Internet. Well, back to 1996, anyway. This non-profit archive showcases a snapshot of publicly accessible web pages for just about any company you can think of, covering as many dates as possible (though dates tend to be more scattered the further back you go). WayBack likes to say it offers more text than the U.S. Library of Congress which boasts 35 million books.

History fascinates me almost as much as air travel and there's nothing like a time machine for insight into the evolution of fees and fares. It's fun too, and here's what I've discovered:

For more travel news and insights view Rick's blog at farecompare.com

Like a lot of industries, the airlines didn't seem to know what to make of the Internet at first. So, they did what most do when something new comes along. They used it for PR.

American Airline's' first appearance on WayBack (April 1998) featured a primitive, bare-bones page that boasted, "The most popular airline site on the Web!" which wasn't much of a contest considering how few had any Internet presence at all. In fact if you tried to find American just a year earlier (1997) the only thing that would pop up for www.aa.com was something called Architech & Arts, and while the title was in English, everything else on that site was in Japanese.

One airline that did embrace the new technology in 1997 offered this cheery greeting: "Welcome aboard the TWA 'We're up to something good' Web Site!" What they weren't up to was selling anything online. If you wanted to fly TWA you had to call the airline or a travel agent (remember those?).

Airlines got the hang of it eventually and began using their websites to sell tickets after the early adopters like Travelocity, Expedia and others who all had websites by 2000 (and some much earlier). Suddenly, airlines had new competition for a slice of passenger travel dollars and they've been complaining ever since (and fighting back with clever tactics like no booking-fees and later a sushi menu of fees for offsite customers).

Today, you can still call for a reservation but of course there's a fee for that. And of course you won't be calling TWA. Which brings us to some darker aspects of airline history, as seen from our time machine.

I look at the last decade in terms of two overwhelming events for air travel: 9/11 and the combination fuel crisis/recession a handful of years later.

A post on American's homepage on Sept. 11, 2001 was both straightforward and poignant: "This morning, two American jets carrying 158 passengers and 17 crewmembers were lost in apparent terrorist attacks." United was also mourning the loss of two planes and vowed to assist law enforcement in "bringing to justice the individuals or organizations responsible for these horrific criminal acts."

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