Airlines pay several billion dollars per year to global distribution systems (GDSs). Even so, many of them still believe that an entire world of products and services – from inflight Wi-Fi to extra legroom – remains largely invisible to passengers who book via online travel agencies (OTAs) and traditional travel agents that use GDSs.
Frustrated with GDS fees and eager to broaden their ancillary revenue stream through product unbundling, airlines continue to warm to ‘Direct Connect’ distribution models, which allow them to bypass GDSs by connecting customers to their host reservations systems.
In 2010 American Airlines (AA) fully embraced the model through a partnership with distribution technology provider Farelogix. This year American inked a deal that saw Priceline become the first major OTA to sell the carrier’s Preferred Seats optional service on its web site.
Recognising and applauding the new arrangement, American offered a 25 per cent discount off its normal price for Preferred Seats for a period of time on Priceline, saying: “This offer is a testament to how customers win when American can choose to distribute its product via less expensive and more capable technology.”
But whilst ancillary revenues are on the forefront of airline managers’ minds, as they can mean the difference between a profit and a loss, carriers are also concerned that GDS-driven web sites do little to engage customers personally early in the booking process, and stifle their ability to tailor their offerings to loyal customers.
“There are a number of problems with their [the GDS] business mode. While being very effective in the past, they are becoming increasingly less effective and somewhat detrimental to the airlines as things go forward,” says Montie Brewer, the former CEO of Air Canada.
The airline industry, which has been in turmoil for more than a decade, is finally seeing signs of stability thanks in no small part to these new ancillary revenue streams, says Brewer.
A GDS is a computerised reservation system that funnels information on airline flights and fares to travel agents. Ironically, GDSs were first constructed by airlines decades ago to automate reservations. They were later divested, but many airlines still rely on them to disseminate their fare information.
The top GDS companies in the United States are Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus. Although airlines are free to distribute fare information through any channel they choose, GDSs command the lion’s share of that market and are the distributers of choice for the largest airlines.
To put this relationship into perspective, the global airline industry – which is projected by IATA to earn profits amounting to USD7.5 billion in 2013 – spends an estimated USD7 billion per year on distribution.
Because ticket distribution is one of the largest controllable costs an airline faces, it’s not difficult to see why carriers would want to lure travellers to their own web sites and away from travel agents. That GDSs have been slow to offer myriad unbundled product and service options has further fuelled interest in the Direct Connect model.
“The situation has become more acute over the last few years,” says Cory Garner, managing director – sales operations and distribution for American Airlines, which got caught up in litigation with Sabre and other GDSs in 2011. “The world has moved on and the airline product has fundamentally changed.”
Garner says American and other airlines do value the link provided by their GDS partners to the travel agencies – especially their robust and lucrative partnerships with corporate travel departments. In short, GDSs serve as another shop window for American and other carriers. But he complains that the GDS business model blocks competition and has not kept pace with the needs of major airlines. “The GDSs like their entrenched role as the only toll bridge,” he says.
Chris Kroeger, senior VP of Sabre Travel Network, disputes the notion that GDS technology has not kept pace with airline industry needs. And he says vocal GDS critics are not representative of the relationship between Sabre and its many, many airline customers.
“We’re actually very aligned with airline goals,” says Kroeger. “The reality is the vast majority of our supplier relationships are good, healthy relationships.”
He points out that Sabre continuously invests in its own infrastructure to improve its service to airlines and to travel agents. “We are actually the enabler of consumer choice,” he says. “The notion that we’re dinosaurs is an outdated notion on their part.”
Kroeger says Sabre and its GDS peers know full well that ancillary offerings by airlines are important and here to stay. Despite what the critics say, Sabre has embraced the model, he says. “Our job is to facilitate that marketplace.”
Henry Harteveldt, chief research officer and co-founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, says GDSs take a lot of heat for not being more responsive to airline needs, but it may not be entirely fair. “The truth is that GDSs have made some progress, but not enough to make the airlines happy,” Harteveldt says.
“It’s easier said than done,” he says. “It requires some development time and understanding what the airlines’ business policies are.”
NOT YOUR FATHER’S AIRLINE
Few would disagree that the quest for ancillary revenue is driving industry change, however. “Ancillary revenue has become popular with companies for good reason; it delivers billions of dollars, euros, and kopeks to industries starved for cash. When coupled with an a la carte method that acknowledges the consumer’s right to choose, it takes on an allure that any business – be it a theme park, retail coffee purveyor, live concert venue, or global airline – can make profitable use of,” says consultancy IdeaWorks.
Airlines that have become better retailers and are taking innovation to new heights, says IdeaWorks, include American and KLM. For example, American provides a luggage delivery service at 200 US airports. Starting at USD29.95, the service will deliver a bag within four hours to an address up to 40 miles from the arrival airport. KLM, meanwhile, highlights seating for couples with its “Seat in a Row of 2” optional extra. Side-by-side seats, with no middle seat, can be assigned for EUR30 per person.
Ancillary revenue is “growing in nearly every market we look at”, agrees Scot Hornick, an airline analyst at Oliver Wyman. He uses the example of US ultra-low-cost carrier Allegiant Air, which saw ancillary revenue as a percentage of its market cap grow from near 8 per cent in 2006 to more than 20 per cent in 2008. Other low-cost carriers like Ireland’s Ryanair and Spirit Airlines in the United States also derive an enormous percentage of their revenue from ancillaries like bag checks, seat assignments and bottled water.
United Airlines managing director of marketing distribution Amos Khim says more of these types of offerings must be available to customers when they book flights through travel agents.
“We want to ensure that the purchase of these products is as easy as possible for our customers through any channel they choose to make their purchase,” says Khim. “The current infrastructure and shopping experience in third-party systems does not support the sale of many of the optional products offered by carriers in a manner that is transparent and efficient.”
During a speech at the World Passenger Symposium in October 2012, IATA director general and CEO Tony Tyler noted that airlines identify customers by frequent flyer or credit card numbers, and tailor their offerings for individuals who shop on their own web sites.
He said travel agents typically can’t offer this level of personalised service. “The customer is anonymous to the carrier until the transaction occurs. Thus, it is impossible for the airline to tailor its offer to the customer via the indirect channel.”
IATA is championing a set of distribution standards, known as New Distribution Capability (NDC), that it says will enable travel agencies to give consumers the same shopping options and choices they currently enjoy when they visit an airline web site. “In other words, NDC is about filling the gap between sales from airline websites that account for approximately 40 per cent of airline tickets by value and sales via agencies powered by the global distribution systems that account for 60 per cent. NDC will offer product differentiation, personalisation and sales of ancillary products and services, advantages that are already standard on airline websites but which have proven very difficult to implement through the GDS/agency channel,” said Tyler in November at the ALTA Airline Leaders Forum in Panama City.
To change the commoditisation of air travel, he said, IATA is developing an open XML standard for airline distribution, “enabling innovation and new market entry by all interested parties. For agents this means the ability to make the same offer to a customer that is being made via the airline website.”
For the most part, travel agencies, which collect monetary incentives from the GDSs, appear loyal to the GDSs and are less inclined to stray from the model. Of the top US online travel agencies, only Priceline uses American’s direct connection. For this reason, Brewer, the former Air Canada CEO, says new competitors to GDSs will struggle to win cooperation from travel agents.
But Farelogix, which created the channel for travel agents to connect directly to American’s reservations system, believes change is afoot. FareLogix CEO Jim Davidson says companies like his have issued what amounts to a “wake-up call” to the traditional GDS industry.
“I think everybody now realizes there is a viable technology out there,” says Davidson.
Another budding competitor to the GDS model is Raddixx International, which built what it calls the first Windows-based airline reservation system that allows carriers to sell any product or service through any channel or directly from its own web site.
The system promises to help airlines lower their distribution costs and increase ancillary revenue, says Radixx CEO Ronald Peri. He believes companies like Radixx are well suited to respond to the needs of the rapidly changing airline industry.
“It’s a key part of what we’ve worked to build,” says Peri. “We started from scratch to build a passenger services system to meet the real-world requirements of current airlines so that we will support all business models.”
Brewer agrees, saying that eventually a GDS competitor will gain traction and overhaul the industry. “This is a slow transition because GDS have so much market power.”