Skift Take

Transparency yes, and no "gotcha" fees at the last moment. But, airlines shouldn't be forced to build their products for Blackberry smartphones when there are so many Android and iOS devices to consider.

Virtually everyone agrees that travelers need to be able to compare the true cost of airfares, plus baggage fees and seat selections, in a transparent manner without getting gouged along the way with hidden extras.

Open Allies for Airfare Transparency, a coalition of industry associations, corporations and travel agencies, advocates that the Department of Transportation step in to ensure that airlines distribute all of their seat and bag-fee information through the GDSs. Open Allies is making much of a Harris Interactive 2012 traveler experiences survey that found that 94% of the 2,310 adults queried who booked summer travel using an online travel agency endorsed the notion that “all airline fee information should be available to travel agents and online travel websites.”

The online survey, conducted September 4 to 6 by Harris Interactive, was commissioned by a founding member of Open Allies, the Interactive Travel Services Association, whose members include global distribution systems such as Sabre, Travelport, and Amadeus, and their OTA clients, including Expedia, Orbitz Worldwide, Priceline, and Travelocity.

Lots of allies doing the GDSs’ bidding

Founded in early 2011, Open Allies, too, despite its roster of nearly 400 trade associations, travel agencies and corporations, has been spearheaded by the GDSs, the American Society of Travel Agents, and the Business Travel Coalition, all of which have collaborated before on similar lobbying efforts. The stakeholders’ primary interest is making sure that the current methods of airline ticket distribution remain the same and that airlines do not sell direct to consumers — even if that lowers prices for consumers.

In the case of the GDSs, the problem with their push for airfare transparency is that they often have been a travel industry force stunting innovation, and they are seeking the distribution of ancillary fee information in a manner that is designed to help them protect their own business turf, not consumers.

Or as Christopher Hunter, a spokesperson for Open Allies puts it:

Our position is that core fees (baggage, seat reservations, and boarding related fees) should be shared with the GDSs in a transparent and purchasable format.

That would be like telling Apple, for instance, that it has to sell all its iPhones through the yellow pages even though Apple prefers to market them through Apple Stores and wireless providers.

Or, to take a more pertinent example, Open Allies’ stance would preclude Priceline, which has a direct connect with American Airlines, from selling American Airlines Preferred Seats, which are positioned near the front of the main cabin, unless American Airlines also sold them through the GDSs, with their dulling linear displays and disadvantageous economics.

Throughout their recent history, whether it was using their market clout to attempt to inhibit Air Canada from introducing branded fares in the manner it saw fit or banding together to muscle American Airlines’ direct-connect push into submission, the GDSs have used their market power to slow innovation in order to protect their own place in the travel distribution ecosystem.

The GDSs admittedly have the biggest pipes to get ancillary fee information into the hands of travel agents, corporations and ultimately travelers, but does their current grip on the travel agency market mean that airlines can’t sell their wares on their own websites and through preferred outlets? And does the industry always have to settle for the lowest common denominator as the GDSs move heaven and earth to protect their own businesses?

A power struggle between GDSs and airlines with travelers caught in middle

The whole debate about personalization, direct-connect and transparency really comes down to a power struggle between the airlines and the GDSs over which sector will have the upper hand in owning and controlling the customer.

Does the industry really have to turn back the clock and sell airline products in the clunky, old-school manner that the GDSs demand?

Should United be able to retain the flexibility to promote its Economy Plus seats on its own website in the manner it desires or should it be forced to collapse its marketing into a mere listing and mind-numbing price point on travel agency sites via a GDS assist?

And, what about Southwest, one of the largest U.S. airlines and one which made its bones selling its flights and services primarily through its own websites and channels?

Would Southwest, under the guise of transparency, be forced to market everything through the GDSs?

Wasn’t GDS deregulation all about reducing GDS veto power and giving airlines the choice to sell through the channels of their choice?

Whether its airline or hotel services, suppliers need to be up-front about the true costs of their services on initial display screens, and there should be no “gotcha” fees as travelers go through the booking process or show up at the airport or hotel front desk.

Fees need to be laid out clearly, boldly and at the very beginning of the buying process.

But that doesn’t mean the industry needs to turn back the clock and sell everything through the old methods when better ones exist. And unfortunately for the Open Allies and its backers, the better ones don’t rely on them.




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Tags: airfares, fees

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