Op-Ed: DOT: Don't Listen To NBTA And Regulate Web Fares - Business Travel News

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Op-Ed: DOT: Don't Listen To NBTA And Regulate Web Fares

March 25, 2002 - 12:00 AM ET

By Michael Hall

The National Business Travel Association in a Feb. 13th news release again has asked the U.S. Department of Transportation to intervene to allow U.S. corporations full access to Web fares.

I would like to urge NBTA to reconsider its position on this, and certainly would implore DOT to ignore NBTA's most recent request. I would like to raise the following points:

Corporations already have full access to Web fares.

Assuming we have Internet access, we have the same access that any other consumer has.

We choose—due to policy or by allowing our travel agency partners to restrict the resources that they avail themselves of—to ignore the availability of Web fares.

The proliferation of Web fares has allowed airlines to compete on price in a more dynamic market.

If corporations choose to be part of that market, we help to drive that competition and, in so doing, help to lower our own airfares.

However, if we ask the government to regulate distribution of Web fares, it could end the very environment that has allowed them to exist. Destabilizing that environment would limit that proliferation, the accompanying competition and, thus, would revert us to a world of more stagnant, higher airfares.

The paradigm has shifted

The question is whether we shift our processes to conform to the new paradigm, or whether we ask the government to reverse-shift the paradigm to suit our existing processes.

The paradigms surrounding our business will shift many times more. Obviously, at some stage we have to make the adjustment. Why not now?

Regulation of the distribution of Web fares would impede the progress made by companies, such as Side Step, Fare Weasel, TRX Inc. and Excambria, in bringing the Web fares closer to our desktops.

Whether we like to believe it or not, Orbitz has done Corporate America a great favor by raising the visibility of Web fares.

Non-global distribution system fares have existed for years. The recent phenomenon isn't the introduction of non-GDS fares, but that our travelers have become more aware of them, more budget-conscious and, thus, our travel agencies less complacent—less likely to treat the GDS tariff display as gospel.

Should we punish the messengers? Should we sanction those technology partners who have made Web fares more accessible by having their innovations regulated into obsolescence?

Web fares themselves are something of a misnomer. As a travel manager, I constantly hear the traveler refrain of, "I found something better on the Web."

When I investigate, about 80 percent of the time I find that the "Web fares" are just the result of online companies, such as Orbitz, employing more robust fare search software (e.g., ITA software) in their fare searches, and finding fare breaks that don't exist in normal tariff displays.

The GDSs recognize this. Worldspan recently has enhanced its fare search engine in response, for example. The "I found a better airfare elsewhere" refrain was sung by corporate travelers long before the arrival of the internet.

How far do we take this? Do we ask the government to intervene to allow corporations full GDS access to consolidator fares? To coupons, waivers and other devices that allow us access to fares lower than those published in the GDS?

And if we allow the government access to the complexities of fare displays, how far will they take it? Will my negotiated discounts be subject to general access?

The bottom line is that we want to provide our travelers with access to the lowest feasible combination of airfares and restrictions.

Airlines want to fill more empty seats. I would trust market forces to shape that equation more efficiently than government regulation.

Michael Hall is the corporate travel manager at Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls and is a member of Orbitz's Consumer Advisory Board.
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