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Airlines are suffering massive losses as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to clip their wings. While the immediate pain is evident, many airlines are looking forward to the day they can welcome a higher number of passengers back on board.
Southwest Airlines is one airline that has its eyes set on a rebound to emerge stronger on the other side. One way it plans to do so is by shifting its distribution strategy. For the first time, the majority of the airline’s content and booking capabilities are available in global distribution systems (GDS) at an industry-standard level of participation, instead of at a basic booking level.
Southwest Airlines Officially Makes Its Way Into the GDS
In August 2019, the airline announced that after nearly 50 years in operation, it would significantly expand the amount of content it offers in the GDS through agreements with Travelport and Amadeus. The move to make the majority of its fares available in the GDS marks a big step forward for the airline in how it reaches business travelers and provides a more consistent customer experience for its corporate travel partners. The integration into Travelport’s GDS took place earlier this month, and it plans to have its content available on Amadeus later this year.
Nearly every other major U.S. airline is in all three of the main GDS providers: Amadeus, Travelport, and Sabre, at an industry-standard level of participation. Prior to this May’s launch, Southwest only offered limited participation in Sabre and Apollo. Most corporate bookings were made on Southwest’s direct channels: SWABIZ, its corporate booking channel, and the Southwest API direct connect. Those that did book within the GDS were unable to perform certain functions, like making changes to bookings — as this could only be done by contacting the airline directly. The process was not only atypical for a major U.S. airline, but was often frustrating and more costly for corporate buyers and agencies.
The agreement will give both Amadeus and Travelport industry-standard access to Southwest’s fares and functionality, like allowing travel managers to change and cancel flights through the system without having to pick up the phone and call the airline directly.
This move to the GDS will certainly impact bookings made on the airline’s direct corporate booking tool, SWABIZ. But Eric Hall, senior manager, strategy and relations of Southwest Business, explained, “We’re not too concerned about business moving from one channel to another. We know that our application programming interface (API) carries a lot of businesses that should be in the GDS. Our focus will be on ensuring that our customers have the right booking channel solution and will be less about the channel shifts. As long as our customers are happy with the way that they’re booking with us, we will be very comfortable no matter how those bookings flow in.”
Evolution in the Wake of Covid-19
This strategic move has been a long time coming for Southwest and its corporate travel buyers — and it’s more important than ever during such a turbulent time.
This distribution strategy was being developed well before the coronavirus pandemic came into play, with efficiency being the number one goal. But it will likely pay off when travel starts to rebound, as Hall explained. “This move was in direct response to customer feedback. For the past few years, we’ve been told that the GDS is the preferred channel among business travelers and corporate travel buyers for booking travel. But it’s a timely shift as well. This new channel strategy will put Southwest in a strong position when a recovery begins,” he said. He further explained that this move will help travel buyers prioritize cost savings, which will likely be top of mind for buyers and agencies.
Beth Marino, chief experience officer at Fox World Travel, a global travel management company, sees the benefit. “This is an absolutely needed move which will help us shorten our booking processes by at least 50 percent,” she said. “The key benefit of the GDS is that it allows us to perform the booking in a standard workflow. The ability to serve our clients will be more efficient, and it will ultimately result in allowing us to offer a more effective and comprehensive service.”
She also agrees that this is especially critical in light of the current pandemic. “This crisis obviously puts a spotlight on the travel manager’s ability to handle increased volumes in situations like this, where cancellations and changes are constant over a long period of time. Having full access in the GDS will allow us to have complete control of the booking, from items like voids, refunds, exchanges, and rebooking,” she said.
Strengthening the Business Even Further
In a bid to further expand their reach in the corporate travel space and attract more business travelers, Southwest has also partnered with ATPCO’s NDC Exchange, a community-driven marketplace that connects multiple airlines to many sellers with a single API.
Additionally, the airline is partnering with the Airline Reporting Corporation (ARC) to ensure the expanded offerings act in accordance with industry standards and to efficiently manage the reporting and settlement of tickets booked through the Travelport and Amadeus channels.
Southwest also continues to enhance its free corporate booking tool, SWABIZ, as it now offers the ability to book cars and hotel rooms, displays day of travel contact information, and features stronger reporting functions for travel managers. The carrier plans to add more functionality in the coming months,
While there’s a lot of uncertainty around air travel and corporate travel lingering right now, one thing is for sure: Southwest has put itself on solid footing to be ready when the clouds start to part.