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Executives at U.S. airlines this week expressed seemingly opposing sentiments regarding development of online portals for corporate client bookings. SkyTeam partners Continental Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Northwest Airlines on Monday announced a joint site powered by G2 SwitchWorks and Amadeus that officials said would provide published and negotiated fares, hotel and car rental inventory, and such travel management components as policy controls and reporting. Later that day, a top American Airlines executive told The Beatthat his carrier has not seen much uptake of the CorporateAAccess portal.
Despite "a lot" of enrolled companies, "usage has been low" for the CorporateAAccess program, said AA senior vice president of global sales David Cush. "There is some interest there; it is not where it was a year ago."
That's because AA, like other major U.S. carriers, last year was embroiled in negotiations with global distribution systems regarding what fares would be provided to system users and how much AA would be charged for bookings. "Twelve to 18 months ago, we were very actively selling this to corporations as being the guarantee for access to full American Airlines content," Cush said. "Right now, GDS economics are sufficiently in lineto where we have other battles to fight."
Similarly, officials with U.S. SkyTeam members said their new portal, SkyCorp Direct, would not offer exclusive fares. "Speaking only for Continental, I do not anticipate that we will be providing Web fares through this type of application," said John Slater, the carrier's managing director of distribution planning and e-commerce.
The same cannot be said of Southwest Airlines and its Swabiz corporate portal. Southwest has not entered into any "full-content" deals with GDS firms and therefore is free to offer exclusive fares on its Web site, including Swabiz. It is largely Southwest's limited GDS participation which has made Swabiz evidently the most widely used airline-owned corporate travel site.
Southwest this month expanded a relationship with BookingBuilder Technologies in which BookingBuilder would enable connections between corporate booking tools and Swabiz. The first tech provider to announce such a connection was nuTravel Technology Solutions, which markets its corporate booking tool through such travel management company partners as Ovation, Travizon, and Tzell, as well as through the ABC Corporate Services, Hickory and Travelsavers consortia. Clients using Swabiz via the BookingBuilder connection would pay $2 per booking on top of nuTravel's normal $3.50 to $5 transaction fee, according to nuTravel CEO Carmine Carpanzano.
BookingBuilder also will continue to provide connections between Southwest's corporate portal and travel agencies.
"The travel agency connection we have had through BookingBuilder has worked very well," said Rob Brown, Southwest director of corporate sales and distribution. "As there are more ways to book corporate travel in more channels, it makes sense for us to look at them to meet the needs of our customers."
While some travel management programs will see benefits from hooking into Swabiz from the traveler point of sale, some industry observers characterized such configurations as work-around solutions requiring extra shopping and data aggregation steps. For U.S. network carriers--generally unable to offer exclusive fares outside GDS channels--presenting a corporate portal value proposition to their clients may be even more difficult.
"Every organization has different cultures and needs, and there are companies that have employees check these airline sites to see if they have the best deal. It's laborious, but it happens in unmanaged environments," said Corporate Solutions Group partner Bob Lichtman. "I see nothing that would make these useful for corporate buyers."
Continental, Delta and Northwest aim to change that percpetion with SkyCorp Direct, which follows individual efforts by three airlines. The portal includes all published fares from the three carriers (including international codeshare flights operated by overseas partners), any negotiated fares clients may have and, for a $5 fee, bookings on other airlines. It also incorporates preferred and published hotel and car rental rates, customized travel policy parameters, traveler profiles, trip templates, travel management reports, bonus frequent flyer mileage and other features.
"Management reporting from a single site would create more loyalty to the program," said Chris Phillips, Delta director of sales development and strategic planning.
The portal uses G2 for bookings with Continental, Delta and Northwest, and the Amadeus GDS for other airline bookings, as well as hotel and car rental transactions. Amadeus e-Travel provides online booking interface.
A next phase for the portal--which, according to officials, is live and already used by several companies--could cover international points of sale, including additional services offered by non-U.S. SkyTeam members.
Because managers at larger-volume companies prefer to keep travelers within the confines of their travel management programs--usually requiring bookings through a designated travel management company or corporate booking tool--the more likely users of SkyCorp Direct would be travelers from smaller companies. "It will be interesting to see how many heavily managed companies use the tool," said Continental's Slater, noting that few of the carrier's larger clients currently direct their travelers to an existing Continental-only corporate online booking page. "I don't know if that dynamic will change because this has richer features and functionality. It may."
Meanwhile, despite low usage, AA will continue to enhance CorporateAAccess "and look at different platforms if there are better ones to go to," Cush said. Tech provider Portaga Inc. this week issued a press release stating that American Airlines "signed a letter of intent to utilize Portaga's internet-based travel management technologies." AA spokespersons were not available to confirm the letter of intent or elaborate on the Portaga partnership.
Regardless of the uneven results of airline corporate portals thus far--including a decision by US Airways to close the America West Airlines corporate portal after the two carriers merged--and the new distribution deals struck last year with GDSs, airlines still have incentive to push consumers to direct booking choices. In addition to lowering distribution costs, Internet channels allow "airlines to feel that they truly 'own the relationship' with direct consumers," according to a new white paper by BCD Travel on global distribution trends. " 'Ownership' of their highest-yield customers--managed and lightly-managed business travelers--remains a point of concern for major airlines, who see the GDSs and travel management companies as competitors on this front."
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