Nearly half of American leisure travelers who booked a flight over the past year used a smartphone app from one or more of the major airlines, according to Travel Weekly's 2016 Consumer Trends Survey.
But travelers were more likely to use apps to search for tickets or check a flight's arrival time than to make a purchase.
Such results are consistent with broader studies on the use of mobile apps in the travel space. The Mobile Travel Landscape 2016 study by Phocuswright found that travelers were more likely to use a mobile device for choosing a destination, comparing or selecting a travel product or sharing trip experiences on social networks than for a travel purchase.
Travel Weekly's study found that 45% of Americans older than 21 who booked a flight in the past year also used an app from a major airline. That usage varied sharply across age lines: 60% of air travel buyers ages 21 to 34 had used an app compared with 52% between 35 and 54. Among those over 55, just 23% had used an airline app in the past year.
Jason Olson, owner of California-based True Vacation Travel, said that he has used most of the major U.S. airline apps, but he primarily recommended them only to younger clients, who tend to have more technical know-how. He also suggests them to frequent travelers on the same carrier.
"I assess whether it is going to be a value vs. an inconvenience," he said. "If you only fly once a year, it's a recipe for frustration."
The Consumer Trends survey found that of those who had used airline smartphone apps in the past year, 65% did so to track on-time status for flights, 61% to check flight availability and pricing, 53% to book flights and 28% to access airplane WiFi.
Such findings aren't surprising to Justin Warby, an Etihad vice president who helped design the app his employer launched this spring. Speaking in June at the Travelport Americas Customer Conference in Miami, Warby said that making the app purchase-friendly was only Etihad's fourth priority.
"No one is going to download the Etihad app to make a booking," he said.
Warby said people download airline apps for services that make their journey less stressful. Other priorities for Etihad's app included building engagement and loyalty and marketing to travel agents, Warby said.
The Consumer Trends study found that travelers who used airline apps in the past year were happy with them overall. Still, airlines, like other segments of the travel industry, have taken criticism for adapting slowly to the mobile age.
Warby said that Etihad was able to learn from the apps of other airlines, "some of which have been relatively poorly done."
Gillian Morris, CEO of Hitlist, an app that provides flight search alerts, called U.S. airline mobile apps, "almost universally terrible."
"The navigation is really slow and clunky," she said, noting that often the apps don't even take bookings, instead sending users to the carrier's mobile website.
Morris postulated that airlines choose not to emphasize their apps because brand loyalty in the industry is low. "I'm not sure having an app is going to drive conversion like lower airfare would," she said.
Atmosphere Research Group analyst Henry Harteveldt agreed with Morris that airlines weigh investing in smartphone apps among all their other commercial systems, but he took a more upbeat tone. "Given the cost and rapid changes that take place in technology, it is better to be right than first," he said. "And good is sometimes better than perfect."
Atmosphere Research's studies have found that airlines sell less than 2% of their tickets through mobile apps, Harteveldt said. And while that number is expected to triple in the next five years, it would still only account for around 6% of bookings.
He believes that incorporating voice recognition technology, like Siri, into smartphone airline apps would spur engagement.