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Caught in the crossfire between Air Canada's decision to limit to its own Web site the availability of some of its lowest fares and the global distribution companies' reactions, travel managers and their advocates this week voiced aggravation with yet another battle over access to airfares and inventory.
At least, the situation represents an inconvenience. At most, it's seen as an overt attempt by Air Canada to push business travelers to higher-priced fare classes.
Cendant and Sabre retaliated to Air Canada's move by withdrawing certain content from their system displays. Sabre took the punitive measure of removing certain premium fare classes often used by traveling professionals, in addition to certain low-fare classes that Cendant also removed. While travel managers generally support these companies' positions on content access, the GDS responses mean users can reach even less content than Air Canada intended.
That the carrier's low "Tango" fares--the ones it pulled from GDSs--are neither available to and from many U.S. cities nor particularly favored by business travelers did not dissuade some travel industry associations from lining up behind the GDS operators in criticizing Air Canada's newest policy.
The Business Travel Coalition today planned to send a letter to Air Canada CEO Montie Brewer signed by more than 40 of the carrier's corporate and collegiate customers from both sides of the border, including some of North America's biggest corporate travel accounts, and even one from Australia. "Removing such important low-fare inventory from the GDSs discriminates against us, frustrates our strategic efforts to automate and consolidate all traveler bookings and interrupts the workflow of our travel management companies which now need to manually shop for, purchase and assemble travel itineraries," the letter stated. "We call on you to immediately reverse this misguided, customer-harmful policy."
The Association of Corporate Travel Executives this week during its annual conference in Atlanta polled 120 Canadian delegates who "overwhelmingly" said Air Canada's strategy would "complicate or hinder their travel program."
According to a spokesperson for the National Business Travel Association, "We are hearing from some members about that, although, so far, it's not like the a groundswell we saw [in 2004 when Northwest Airlines attempted to place a fee on GDS bookings]. We are keeping our ears to the ground and are gathering information through the [affiliated] Canadian Alliance of Business Travel, which will communicate to Air Canada the variety of perspectives we're hearing from members. Many members are already talking to Air Canada."
Another poll during the ACTE conference indicated that more than half of the delegates attending a session on content conflicts expected suppliers within 18 months to preference individual distribution channels and discriminate against others by limiting access to content and inventory. Similarly, just over half expected airlines, global distribution systems or travel management companies to charge corporate buyers for access to content and inventory.
U.S. airline representatives speaking during that session tried to distance their companies from such tactics. "Based on our long-term agreement with Sabre, the content we will have on delta.com and the content will have in Sabre will be synonymous," said Pam Elledge, Delta Air Lines vice president of sales and distribution.
"We are not going to require corporations to come to united.com," added United Airlines managing director of worldwide sales strategy Scott Brandt.
Yet, comments from both executives--addressing the merits of alternative distribution systems, for example--illustrate persistent carrier attempts to pressure GDS operators, thereby heightening content fragmentation concerns. "I envision a landscape where there will be preferred GDSs and you may see that Delta Air Lines is not participating in all four GDSs," Elledge said.
"Rule number one is, don't rely on a sole source provider," Brandt added. "It is going to continue to be a very challenging and in some ways unstable environment to access content, even with the new GDS deals in place."
That's where travel management companies say they bring their technology and supplier agreements to bear, since corporate travel managers prefer to access all the relevant content in one place. GDS operators, too, have sought to assuage corporate customer concerns.
"To the extent that carriers do what, say, Air Canada did in the Canadian market with Tango fares ... you have to be able solve that from a commercial standpoint and a technical standpoint," said Kurt Ekert, senior vice president of supplier services for Cendant Travel Distribution Services. "Certainly if those kinds of things happen, we're going to make sure we are positioned to provide that functionality to our customers."
It remains unclear how Air Canada may react to the concerns, although some sources suspected it would negotiate a solution with distributors.
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