Tony Tyler, IATA's director general and CEO, recently laid out a seemingly rational and reasonable case for what the airline group is calling "a new distribution capability," or NDC, that would put some 21st century pizazz into the agency channel.
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As Tyler explained it in a speech at the recent World Passenger Symposium in Abu Dhabi, airlines can now do on their websites what online merchants take for granted. They can remember who their customers are, their purchasing history, their likes and preferences.
This enables them to make suggestions and tailor their offerings to try to anticipate the consumer's needs, much like Amazon and other online shopping sites.
In the GDS/agency channel, however, not so much. The typical query is not "Who are you?" but "Where are you going, and when do you want to go?"
What the airlines claim to want, as we've heard over and over, is the ability to begin that conversation on a different note, to customize the initial presentation of routings, fares and ancillary services to a particular passenger's profile.
Airlines complain that in the traditional GDS environment, they have no idea who is asking about Chicago-Nairobi options until the transaction is nearly complete.
This is a fair point, but it's only fair up to a point. What the airlines fail to note is that while they might not know who is asking about Chicago-Nairobi, the travel agent does know.
And that's what's missing from Tyler's scenario: an honest discussion of the agent's role.
If the agent of the future sits down at the sales platform of the future and types in "I have John Doe here from XYZ Corp., and he needs to be in Seattle for a meeting on Thursday," what then? Is the travel agent supposed to step aside and let the airline's algorithm take over?
ASTA, in a spirited response to Tyler's address, said that in its development of NDC, IATA has fallen far short of "full and open transparent collaboration with the travel agency community."
Society President Nina Meyer said in a statement that after ASTA asked to participate in an IATA working group on the project, scheduled for Montreal in November, it was told that agency associations would not have access to the development process.
IATA has to do better than that. Tyler said he's looking for technology to "bridge the gap between airlines and their customers so that customized offers can be made even through travel agents."
Bridge the gap, or jump over it?
Airlines have made the case that GDS displays could become much more useful to them than they have been. We believe them. Even the GDSs seem to believe them.
But we also believe that those displays could be a lot more useful to the agents who use them day in and day out and, just as importantly, to the clients who rely on agents for information and advice. These are, after all, B2B tools, designed to be used by professional intermediaries.
For several years, agents have been caught up in a power struggle between the airlines and the GDSs, and as a result, travel agency clients are being denied the benefits of new technology.
Airlines have every right to seek control of the conversation when customers come to their websites, but if they're going to support a tool for intermediaries, they also have to support the intermediaries.