'Full content' a promise unfulfilled By Dennis Schaal / February 17, 2009 Share 1 -- The flurry of checked-bag fees, advance-purchase aisle seats and newly branded fares with bundled perks, many of which can be booked only on airline websites, call centers or at the airport, make notions of "full content" tenuous, at best. Travel agents certainly remember the advent of the full-content deals of 2006, when Sabre introduced its Efficient Access Solution and the other GDSs followed suit. In essence, travel agencies gave up a chunk of their incentives and avoided onerous fees from the airlines in exchange for promises of full content. It is believed that those agreements gave the airlines plenty of wiggle room to market special fares to subsets of their frequent flyers and also to merchandise their content in new ways through their own websites and call centers. Fast forward to the early days of 2009, and there are buckets full of content that travel agents can't access from their GDSs. In fact, ASTA's just-released "2008 Technology and Web Usage Report" found that 94% of agency members sometimes book directly on a supplier website without using a GDS and that airline seats are the product most likely to be booked on the Web. For example, one agent told me she books her clients' trips on JetBlue's website rather than in her GDS because they get extra TrueBlue points when the booking is made on JetBlue.com, and a seat map is available before payment. In addition, JetBlue participates at a relatively low level in her res system, so the GDS stopped paying incentives for the airline. Looking at another content hole, since early in 2008 consumers have been able to book United's Economy Plus seats on United.com, but agents have been unable to do so in a GDS. Sabre agents are scheduled to get that capability this spring, United says, and there's been no word on if and when other res systems will be able to catch up. Even as Travelport, through its upcoming universal desktop, attempts to extract airline content from carrier websites in creative ways, there still is a bevy of a la carte offerings and fees that agents have to go online to get and pay for if they want to service their clients, all outside of their everyday workflow and GDS systems. The current content gap has parallels to the Web-fare era that frustrated agents early in this decade. As you might recall, at that juncture, major airlines had launched Orbitz, and so-called Web fares were only available on Orbitz.com and the carriers' own websites. Discount-hungry consumers largely couldn't go to agencies for those rock-bottom deals or would tell agents that an airline website had a much lower fare than the agent could offer. Sabre helped stop the bleeding in 2002, when it launched its Direct Connect Availability Three-Year Option program. DCA-3 gave major airlines substantial booking-fee discounts in exchange for GDS and agency access to Web fares on an equal playing field. A similar game-changing type of action is needed today, but a comprehensive, near-term solution appears unlikely. That's because the content-gone-missing issue is both an economic and technical one. The airlines, rocked by years of losses and the fuel-price surge last year, found a way, with their checked-bag, meal and other a la carte fees, to give some life to their business models by nickel-and-diming their customers to an absurd degree. They can get away with it for now only because travelers are unorganized. At the least, there may be pressure on the airlines to make all of these fees more transparent. Meanwhile, by ensuring that passengers and agents can only book these offerings on airline websites, the carriers are driving traffic to their lowest-cost channel. In so doing, they may be boosting their brands and their coffers, but assuredly they are losing the incremental bookings that the travel agency channel always brings. But the content gap also is a technical one. The airlines, stymied by the GDSs' well-known lack of innovation, are each going off in their own directions, branding fares and offering disparate services in novel and very complex ways. There are only rudimentary standards for the manner in which airlines offer these a la carte products on their websites or for making them available to online agencies, GDSs and other third parties. Developing these standards needs to be a high priority for all segments of the industry. Without these standards, any solutions for making this content more widely available will be slow, cumbersome and stop-gap for now, varying by airline and GDS. In 2009, the result is that "full content" will remain a fleeting, sometime thing. Contributing editor Dennis Schaal covers travel technology for Travel Weekly. Contact him at email@example.com.