es, it would be better if the airlines involved weren't in bankruptcy. And yes, there are some serious preferred-supplier issues to be sorted out.

But on first blush, the airline/GDS/travel agency program called Momentum represents a significant evolutionary leap in GDS pricing initiatives, perhaps akin to the jump from great ape to early man.

Airlines want to reduce GDS costs. Until now, the GDSs were insisting that they adhere to their schedule of ever-increasing per-segment revenue. The two seemed to share a belief that the only way to accomplish both goals was to start to pass on segment costs to travel agents and their customers.

The earliest initiatives -- in this tortured Darwinian metaphor, the equivalent to the tailless gibbon -- were offered by Worldspan and Sabre/GetThere. These simply asked travel agents to pick up costs, voluntarily, with the suggestion that the money could be recouped with fees charged to clients. Needless to say, gibbons, to this day, are quite rare.

In the next iteration -- American Airline's EveryFare -- there's a dim awareness that agents need an incentive to take on costs. The incentive on offer is access to American's Web fares in a manner that allows agents to retain segment booking credits.

The problem is that the pool of agencies that can consider this to be attractive is quite small, and the fine print in the proposal goes on page after page.

What struck me as particularly uninviting about EveryFare is that agents assume all the risk. The GDSs have nothing to lose if agents sign up -- to the contrary, they gain, because they are able to collect fees for fares that had not been in their systems previously. And the only cost to American is in the development (and marketing) of a technology that enables them to reduce expenses. Ostensibly, agents can turn the Web fares into a profit center if they attract new business in high enough volume to collect additional fees, but it seems to me they assume a disproportionate share of uncertainty.

Still, in recognizing that agents needed some incentive, it moved the proposals from the realm of the lesser apes to chimps.

With Momentum, we've come down out of the trees. Every party assumes some risk, and every party sees potential for real upside.

In past proposals, the GDSs seemed to be the most timid of the parties. But not in this initiative. Galileo, the presumed parent of the proposal (the dateline on the press release is Parsippany, N.J.), may in fact be taking the greatest risk -- it's willing to actually lower segment fees -- and is also in the position to realize the greatest upside. Or rather, its parent, Cendant, may reap the greatest benefit.

Cendant needs to make a bold move. Despite a decade-long search for synergies in travel, Cendant's stock currently is below its closing price at the end of 1993. Hotel brands, car rental companies, Internet travel agencies, time-share condos, a GDS -- it must have looked awfully good on paper, but the company never seemed to be able to leverage these segments into a significant win.

Momentum, however, has tremendous potential to give Galileo a competitive boost that can't be matched easily by GDSs that don't also own commissionable products to dangle (alongside Web fares) in front of travel agents. These commissionable products also stand poised to get some lift, as long as preferred-supplier relationships don't get in the way.

That's a big if, and there are additional gaps that remain to be bridged if the evolution of GDS pricing is to continue. More airlines need to enroll. More travel agencies need to sign up and, importantly, increase sales of Cendant products.

The road to civilization is long, but if Momentum gains momentum, the other GDSs may begin to look a bit like Neanderthals, scratching their heavy brows, wondering what it all means for them.


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