Joe Sharkey last week wrote in The New York Times that he thought American Airlines “had a good idea there” with the launch of a website “just for its female travelers, www.AA.com/women.”

But the lavender-designed site — which is now a more gender-neutral industry blue — struck a nerve with savvy women travelers. Juile Pfeffer doesn’t hold back:

“There are so many things that are infuriating about this lip-service nonsense that I can’t begin to list them all,” said Ms. Pfeffer, an executive with the emerging markets division of Artisan Partners, an investment management company.

“But I have to ask this: Why does AA feel that female travelers need things explained to them that male travelers don’t? Are we that dumb? That inexperienced in the ways of air travel?” she said.

It seems the airline’s long-planned foray into niche Web marketing for the growing number of female travelers, and especially female business travelers, has “hit a nerve,” as Ms. Pfeffer said.

She was especially disdainful of what she called “stereotyped and occasional downright insulting content” on the Web site, which offers travel advice from a panel of experienced businesswomen, as well as various on-the-road tips and a forum for women to share experiences and compare notes.

Ms. Pfeffer wasn’t buying the airline’s contention that this constitutes vital information. “We most certainly do not need 1950s-era advice, such as ‘Always bring a little black dress to wear with these heels’ — from the ‘Tips From Our Road Warriors’ section — good grief!” she said.

Good grief, indeed. Sharkey got the same response from other women interviewed, with comments ranging from “patronizing” to “condescending.”

The week before, Sharkey wrote about the growing influence women have on the travel industry and how American’s website reflected the industry’s awareness.

“‘We think the market is right for it,” Peggy Sterling, American’s vice president for safety, security and environmental issues, told the Times. ”Women clearly have very strong purchasing power.”

Kudos to American Airlines for at least getting the second part right.

Andrea Learned, an expert on marketing to women and co-author of the smart book “Don’t Think Pink,” has more on the blunder and also offers some tips for how AA could have avoided this mis-step. She concludes with this suggestion:

Take all the lessons learned from this large mistake and redesign the regular American Airlines site and examine/improve the entire frustrated flyer’s customer experience to the higher standards of women.  Done well, such an effort will not alienate men, but will produce exponential positive word-of-mouth among every as-yet quite cynical air customer, “female business traveler” or otherwise.

Christine

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