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Everyone loves an analogy. Now we have Sabre comparing booking a seat on a plane to shopping in a supermarket as it launches its “new airline storefront.”

Sabre believes airlines have increasingly complex offers. So someone booking directly on an airline’s website could be overwhelmed by different fare names, seat types and the various ancillaries on offer when they try to compare that deal with another airline deal.

And when booking indirectly, say on an online travel agency, Sabre thinks those complex bundles get lost in translation, and end up being shown as just a fare, with little visibility on what’s included.

Sabre’s response is this storefront concept, which provides “shelves” for travel agencies, and travel managers, to display different airlines’ content side by side. It claims it is an industry-first capability that makes it easier to comparison-shop in the indirect channel.

Behind the scenes, its data scientists are mapping all of the airline offers, aspects like baggage allowance, refundability and exchangeability, and normalizing them into something that’s easily comparable.

It went live on March 31, but some of these shelves might not be as fully stocked at it would like them to be. For now, there’s no so-called new distribution capability content, or low cost carrier offers, being mapped over, while there’ll be questions over how travel managers can move away from a lowest price mentality.

But Sabre insists this is a milestone.

Getting Personal

“I’m a 30-year veteran of this industry, and this is probably one of the most exciting opportunities I’ve had to announce, because it is truly transformational for the travel industry,” Kathy Morgan, vice president of offer sourcing at Sabre Travel Solutions, said during a virtual pre-launch event.

One reason is that the storefront fits in with the theme of personalization. Sabre’s goal is to allow travel sellers to present people with offers and prices based on their preferences. It goes beyond a templated email with your name at the top, proposing deals you may or not be interested in.

Airlines are investing heavily in the extra touches to help their brands stand out. Picture: Flickr.

“Most travel businesses are still a big step away from true omni-channel personalization, where you look at predictive personalization, determine what people will do in the future and tailor offers accordingly. Storefront is one building block,” she said.

So how does the passenger get to the point where they’re sitting in their perfect seat on a plane?

Once the offers are mapped by the data scientists, they are then made available to different points of sale, via Sabre’s shopping application programming interfaces, or APIs. For example, an online travel agency could build a bespoke storefront.

The agent could instruct the system it wants one shelf for all fares with “one free bag plus free cancellation” and another shelf for fares with “two free bags plus seat assignment plus free cancellation.”

It’s also being partly partly rolled out in its travel agency desktop solution, Red360, with a full deployment due in the second quarter.

It will be made available in GetThere, Sabre’s corporate online booking tool, later this year. Travel managers can then order how flight searches are displayed by attributes, rather than price.

“It will give corporate travel managers greater transparency around in-policy offers,” Morgan said. “It enables them to communicate not only price, but total offer value and give a visual representation of what is included or excluded in each offer.”

Eventually, due to machine learning, new criteria will automatically be created as its systems evolve to automatically add those extra ancillaries that airlines will inevitably be coming up with.

The Risks of Oversimplification

Sabre thinks storefront will offer airlines more upsell opportunities in the indirect channel, with flight search results displaying several product offerings for an individual flight.

But will the shelves for specific attributes align with how agents and airlines are thinking?

“Agents will have to figure out how they want to group various offers and that might end up differing quite heavily across agents, which won’t make consumers’ life easier,” said Steve Domin, co-founder and CEO of aggregator Duffel. “On the other hand, airlines might be frustrated to see their products ending up on shelves that don’t accurately represent the full value of their offering.”

For example, another attribute Sabre wants to show, but is not yet developed, will be “seat comfort,” which will be assessed on a scale of one to three, based on the seat’s pitch, dimensions and other factors.

Airlines that have heavily invested in a new luxury cabin may not be altogether happy to be lumped into the same rating as a competitor with what they perceive is an inferior product.

And as for its ambition of personalized offers, that full gamut of new distribution capability will be needed, particularly as airlines go full throttle into continuous pricing. Morgan said this type of content was a strategic priority for Sabre, and pointed to the fact Sabre has just launched Qantas NDC offers in Australia and New Zealand, while it’s on track to offer  this type of content from Singapore Airlines to more parts of the world over the course of this year.

Morgan said Sabre was “actively engaged” with Lufthansa about bringing its new distribution capability content into the Sabre travel marketplace, and piloting all these capabilities in GetThere.

Meanwhile, Sabre was certified as “IATA NDC Capable Level 4” as an airline IT provider last month, which demonstrates its “maturing capabilities,” according to the company. Longer term, Morgan said the storefront will fold storefront into its smart retail engine, Sabre Labs and the work it’s doing with Google.

There’s a risk Sabre’s storefront will be confused with another storefront. Travel industry-owned clearinghouse ATPCO (Airline Tariff Publishing Company) has its own Next Generation Storefront, which is a data standard that also allows travelers to comparison shop for flights.

However, Sabre believes it is innovating beyond this, but will include some of its data, particularly ATPCO’s standard for Covid-19 travel advisory measures.

Despite the official launch, Sabre’s new airline storefront could be seen as more of a concept until more content is plugged in.

“All things considered it’s a pretty neat solution to a difficult problem and it gives the agents a lot of flexibility,” Domin said. “I just wonder how it’s going to stand the test of time and if it would benefit from being a little more opinionated.”

Photo Credit: A lounge onboard a Qantas Airbus A380. The airline is actively engaged in Sabre's “Beyond NDC” program. Qantas