Air Malta is a real mess, but let’s face it: if you live in Malta, for some destinations, you don’t really have any choice but to fly with them. In this article, I’m not going to talk about Air Malta’s long-standing financial woes, their shady practice of overbookings, or their customer service (or lack thereof), none of which have improved over the years.
Instead, in the spirit of the Sorry State of the Web series, I’m going to talk about the simple journey of booking a flight, in the hope that we can learn a thing or two about user experience in the process.
We start off by selecting a flight on Air Malta’s website, which has been redesigned in recent years and looks nice and modern. After selecting the departure and arrival airports and dates, we click on “Find flights”. So far so good.
Can’t Go Back
The dates I happened to choose at random included one with no flights available. Instead of picking one from the grid shown in the screenshot above, I preferred to go back and start over. Except that I couldn’t, because there’s some redirect in place that breaks the Back button and brings me back here every time.
Service Charge for No Refund
Okay, so I went back to the homepage and started over, selecting different airports and dates, and making it a one-way flight. This time, I have a choice of flights on the same day, and I can pick between three different fares:
It seems that Air Malta adapted to the uncertainty of COVID19 by providing varying levels of refundability to their flights depending on the option chosen. In each case, you pay a €19 service fee, including when the flight is non-refundable. Wait what?
I have a long history of airlines and other websites either not accepting my surname or replacing apostrophes with the HTML entity
'. Well, we’re in 2023 and Air Malta still thinks we’re not allowed to have apostrophes in our surnames, even though governments have been perfectly happy to accept them for centuries.
As I wrote in earlier editions of the Sorry State of the Web series, this bullshit is just a case of excessively restricted validation. Any concern about the use of apostrophes for SQL injection is easily dismissed by the fact that nowadays we have (and use… yeah, right) prepared statements.
In fact, I found that characters with diacritics (such as French accents or German umlauts) are also excluded from Air Malta’s definition of “alphabetic characters”:
Fortunately, I’m not the only one experiencing the frustration of an unacceptable surname on a regular basis. It turns out there’s a “Your Name Is Invalid!” Twitter account which regularly posts similar episodes.
If you look on the right-hand-side of the two screenshots above, you’ll notice that there’s a “1 x 0kg (included)” luggage listed. Perhaps it’s a new offer from Air Malta: bring your hand luggage on board for free, as long as it’s weightless!
After paying for the flight, I’m taken to this page with a browser title saying “APCO_AUTH_SUCCESS”. It’s got what seems to be XML in the URL’s querystring, presumably the type of SOAP message that people used to coordinate war efforts during the Crusades.
The page also says “Your payment was successful, you are now redirected to the Confirmation page”. No I’m not! The page doesn’t budge and I’m just stuck here.
It takes more than a fancy website to create a good user experience. Despite my aversion to Air Malta, this is also true of many other websites and web applications, especially in Malta where the bar is rather low.
The most important thing when developing a website or web application is to test it. Everything I’ve shown in this article is easily spotted simply by using the website, following a pretty ordinary journey through the booking process. All these things could have been caught by a developer or an Air Malta employee before reaching customers like me.
Another piece of advice around user experience is to have some empathy. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer. Is your obsession with alphabetic characters going to win any points with a customer simply trying to enter their name? Probably not.
Let’s learn something from this and try to improve. That way we can have happier customers and happier businesses.