Recent enhancements made by global distribution system Sabre to an airfare-loading product have enabled travel management companies to electronically submit zone fares directly into the GDS and allow airlines and agencies to submit online up to 20 domestic flat fares, including zone fares. Both are new capabilities for Sabre, but not necessarily the rest of the industry.
The process of loading zone fares—meeting and group travel products that feature flat fares, set well in advance, based on large geographic zones of city pairs—into GDSs can be critical to corporate meeting buyers. Short corporate meeting lead times require attendees to have quick access to zone fares. Also, the growing ability of meetings management technology and online self-booking systems to provide air bookings when a meeting attendee registers for the event necessitates the availability of all applicable zone fares at the time of attendee registration.
Sabre's enhancements, instituted in March, concern its Percent Off Fares Online product, which gives airlines and agencies the ability to distribute fares with a percentage off full price, as well as the rules governing their use, into the GDS, said spokesperson Dawn Dorman. The product is a replacement for Sabre's Snap manual corporate-discount template, she added.
Traditionally, the airlines' standard, public zone fares have been loaded electronically into Sabre via the Airline Tariff Publishing Co., like all published fares. Though Sabre's electronic agency zone fare feed breaks new internal ground, it is not an industry first. Both Worldspan and Galileo International also accept such feeds. Yet, with a 43 percent share of U.S. GDS bookings (BTN, May 26),
Sabre is the largest player in the market.
One concern among some buyers about the zone fare loading process in general, and Sabre's abilities in that area in particular, centers on the growth of online self-booking in the meetings industry. Many booking providers have allied with online meetings management companies to provide air booking at the point of event registration. Yet, especially at large companies with operations in several locations, attendees may be flying to a meeting from departure points in several zones. For full utility, online booking tools must provide all necessary pairs of departure zones and the arrival zone.
"The problem will arise when we implement an online meetings management system and access zone fares through online booking," said one large-company travel buyer who requested anonymity. "There are no issues on the surface with an agency, as long as an individual attendee can make a reservation by phone. But when you automate the process and link the meetings management system to online booking, because of the way zone fares are set up, there may be restrictions as to the number of zone fare pairs in the system." The buyer said Snap capped the number of general city pairs to 10, which might not cover the number of zone fare pairings needed for an international meeting. "I think this will help," the buyer said. "This will be more of an issue as more people look into this technology."
Sabre's enhancements to allow the submission by agencies or airlines of up to 20 flat fares addresses this issue. The electronic agency submission of fares also should enhance the ability of booking systems to handle zone fares, said one consultant. "The obvious advantage is for bookings through the self-booking tool, which are tied by definition to automatic pricing online," said Andrew Menkes, chairman and CEO of Princeton, N.J.-based Partnership Travel Consulting.
Agency officials said automatic zone fare feeds would result in more reliable data. "It would automatically reduce errors and increase productivity at the point of sale," said Richard Spradling, TQ3 Travel Solutions CIO. "Our view is that our best interests are served when the total universe of fares is available to be accessed through the GDS, then there is a powerful tool to offer at the point of sale. To the extent that all fares are not available, work-arounds add cost and complexity to the process."
Since their growth in the mid-1990s, zone fares have proven popular with meeting buyers due to their lack of a Saturday-night stay requirement and their ability to offer buyers cost certainty well in advance of the event. Recent Meetings Today research found that about 37 percent of meeting buyers use zone fares, up about five percentage points from 2002 (Meetings Today, May 12).
However, as zone fares are set much earlier than transient fares—upon which other meeting fares are based—and each zone covers hundreds of potential city pairs, the zone fare charged on a given city pair can vary significantly from other applicable fares.
The Sabre enhancement for now only covers the airlines' public, standard zone fares, which any group with the minimum number of attendees can access. Some large corporations successfully have negotiated their own zone fare packages, in some cases receiving lower fares or less stringent restrictions. As negotiated corporate rates and rules, those fares fall under the terms of ATPCo.'s category 25, which allows airlines to file in ATPCo. complex corporate contract terms. Sabre does not yet accept electronic category 25 feeds from ATPCo., but will in the next few months, Dorman said (BTN, May 12).
Worldspan and Galileo already accept category 25, also called Fare by Rule, feeds (BTN, Aug. 12, 2002).