02 December 2010

Rhetoric Up, Sadly Common Sense Down. The AA vs Travelport War.

While I am not exactly a disinterested party in the AA vs Travelport war - I am amazed at just how many parties want the status quo to remain.

I have asked the question before but let me ask it again - to misquote The Bard - Why does the Lady protest so much? Why do all these parties such as Travel Agencies, GDSs and OTAs scream about this as being a travesty of monumental proportions. When such an outcry is heard - I always question the motivation. Healthy Skepticism is ABSOLUTELY required.

Perhaps one of the more balanced analysis I have seen comes from Peter Harbison at CAPA. I recommend reading this analysis because it is (in my humble opinion) thoroughly insightful and balanced. This is in contrast to the hysterical rhetoric that is coming from the kitchen tables of BTC and TCA. In my view they are both acting as surrogates for the GDSs without giving the balanced view that perhaps their organizations should provide.

ITSA's submission to the DOT is an exercise in - well - obfuscation that one would normally expect from politicians. It makes you wonder why politicos spout so much BS - when you read the input it becomes clear. But I digress....

At the moment if you judge reading the press - both trade and consumer - the battle is characterized as a way for AA to leverage Travelport, being the weakest GDS, into a pricing battle submission. IE that AA will win and Travelport will lower its prices.

I think this is very far from the truth and the main issue at hand.

This is not a battle exclusively about cost/price although it is very easy to characterize it thus. The broader issue is that the airlines have a complex product and they don't want to be commoditized easily. Almost every other industry in the web era has moved away from commoditization with independent shopping tools provided to simplify the search and shop experience. One of the few places where this has not happened is in books. But books are a simple product slap a SKU on it and away you go. Travel is by definition very complicated in addition to being one of the more expensive products purchased on an annual basis.

Where the OTAs and the GDSs - who have a symbiotic relationship as reflected in their joint industry body - ITSA - have systematically failed is to improve the quality of search for the consumer. So frankly their arguments about consumer value and protection are spurious. The financial incentive to keep the OTAs using the obsolete technology of the GDSs has made the OTAs fat dumb and very lazy. As Rich Barton - one of the co-founding team of Expedia put it - and I paraphrase - dont put your money is advertising, put it into technology. Well his alma mater (and mine) has not done that for the air search process. Nor have the others - Orbitz (owned 49% by Travelport) or Travelocity (owned 100% by Sabre). But that cozy relationship is about to be torn apart because Mr Big (aka Google) is going to blow everyone out the water with taking a better search tool (ITA's QPX engine) and at least comparable supply access to create as they say "a better customer experience".

So we are clear - Google will be able to bring a heck of a lot more expertise to the search process not to mention customer data to make that experience more generic. If you like Google can do a much better job at commoditization of the travel product that the GDSs and those that they power have done. However navigation and manipulation by the consumer will be so much better.

Note - I didn't say best here! I believe that there are others who have different solutions which may be better in part or in whole.

My synopsis therefore of the situation is that Travelport is fighting a rearguard action with AA and this is not a battle that they can easily win. Indeed they have to some extent admitted this by allowing Southwest to offer their products via the uAPI not via the GDS. IE acknowledging that not only is an airline not a commodity product but that their core mainframe technology does not support the proper search facility.

At no point in the above mentioned PR release does Travelport state that you can shop Southwest in an integrated display. So if I get this wrong ... please tell me and prove it with a display. Because then there is another issue...

So let's have some common sense here and learn to get along. The GDSs should be investing in better search and removing the financial "handcuffs" that they have placed on the Intermediary community. And yes - that does benefit my position. But its also more honest. Would you not say?

I suggest also reading the ITSA submission to the DoT here
And the Airlines Response here


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