Orbitz takeoff shaky amid tech glitches, heavy traffic

Popularity proved to be a double-edged sword this week for Orbitz LLC.

Although it was functional a week ago and had been in test mode with beta users for months, Monday marked the official launch of the "new" Chicago-based travel site (see story).

Immediately after the launch, users began experiencing lengthy delays on the site and had almost as much trouble getting through to the site's call center, where approximately 120 employees were overwhelmed by higher-than-expected calls for help.

The culprit: A WorldCom Inc. fiber-optic cable that feeds the Chicago headquarters was accidentally cut on Monday, slowing Web traffic to the site. And even after the cable was repaired, users were still having trouble getting through to customer service.

"We did have higher-than-expected call volume," said Orbitz spokeswoman Dawn Doty. "We will just hire more call center employees, faster."

Despite the less-than-smooth launch, Orbitz earned $4.3 million. That's as much in its first two days of operation as it earned in four months of testing, according to Doty.

Financed by Delta Air Lines Inc., Continental Airlines Inc., Northwest Airlines Inc., United Air Lines Inc. and American Airlines Inc., and supported by 450 other U.S. and international carriers, Orbitz is the subject of antitrust inquiries by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

That probe has been fueled in part by two competitors, Bellevue, Wash.-based Expedia Inc., and Fort Worth, Texas-based Travelocity.com LLP, and one airline, Southwest Airlines Co. in Dallas, which has accused Orbitz of publishing misleading and incorrect fare information.

While the legal fight continues, the three big online travel sites are expected to continue fighting for customer loyalty amid claims of technological superiority.

Kate Rice, an analyst at PhoCusWright Inc. in Sherman, Conn., said she isn't convinced from a user standpoint that Orbitz has any technological edge.

"You know, you don't need a zillion fares. You need one that's going where you want to go roughly when you want to go. That's what gets lost," she said.

Still, she said there is a place for Orbitz.

"It's just a market with huge potential, and I think there's room for a third player," Rice said. "They have to do a lot right and not make any mistakes."

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