As the direct-connection mosh pit among airlines, online travel agencies and GDSs plays out in courtrooms and on desktops, I recently compared notes with corporate travel blogger Joe Brancatelli of JoeSentMe.com.
Joe and I are both alumni of the Official Airline Guide. He had a ringside seat to its post-GDS revival as editor of OAG's Frequent Flyer magazine. I witnessed a post-Internet period of decline when I managed a dozen OAG-branded tour directories that were sold to travel agents in Europe.
With the advent of the Web, OAG went in less than a decade from a company that had sold for $750 million in 1993 to one that a source tells me was handed to its management in exchange for $1. (My former tour directories were retained by the seller and continue to thrive, I'm happy to report.)
OAG has since revived, strengthened considerably after being acquired by UBM Aviation in 2006. It continues to be the leading source of consolidated airline information to the GDSs as well as to airlines and third-party companies like ITA Software.
OAG's pre-GDS history (see our Editorial, "Fragmentation") puts today's events in an interesting light. And so does its post-GDS role.
In an email exchange, Brancatelli wrote, "I've been talking to all of these experts on distribution, and they're very good about explaining the airlines' side and goals, the GDS side and goals, etc. But no one, I think, has yet spoken for traditional agents or, by proxy, for their customers."
He continued, "It seems to me there are three questions:
1) Will the government require airlines to provide informational data to a neutral source so that there is a central repository that has access to all fares and all ancillary charges and products?
2) How can that neutral source monetize that information so that it can be made available to the public (agents and travelers), who have an obvious interest in a complete and unbiased display of options?
3) How much will travelers (or agents) pay for access to this level-playing-field information?"
Good questions, and OAG's potential role as a provider of this information came up in subsequent correspondence. (OAG currently doesn't give away information for free, but some of its licensees do: Check out ITASoftware.com.)
The answers to some of Brancatelli's questions might be suggested by what happened to OAG in the late '90s.
After its desktop guides to airline schedules were made obsolete by the GDSs, its primary revenue source became printed pocket guides carried by business travelers. The big revenue came not from subscription income from those travelers but from airlines, which paid to have supplemental connecting information added to the nonstop flights (listed by OAG without charge to the carriers). OAG could demonstrate to the airlines that a well-placed connecting flight listing could move market share.
But though OAG's steep revenue decline in the late '90s occurred because airlines reduced their support of the pocket flight guides, it should not be viewed as a cautionary tale about what happens when airlines turn against an intermediary. Rather, the withdrawal of airline support simply reflected the fact that OAG's value to business travelers diminished. Up-to-the-second information was suddenly free and ubiquitous on the Web.
There is no exact parallel situation today. The airlines are seeking to reduce their involvement with the GDSs even though those intermediaries appear to have the support of the consumers of their information: travel agents, travel management companies and online travel agencies.
In the end, there's no reason why airlines should be compelled to distribute through channels they don't like, just as GDSs have no obligation to partner with any specific airline if they don't want to.
Airlines certainly have the right to offer a choice no one is demanding; some great innovations have occurred without the support of focus groups.
And underlying their boldness is the airlines' belief that people will fly (and agents will book air) even if the shopping process becomes more cumbersome rather than easier.
The airlines wave the banner of "choice" in their defense, but there will always be choices beyond their control. In Brancatelli's scenario, OAG could certainly strengthen its business of selling unbiased schedule displays. Or perhaps ITA, if acquired by Google, could put the neutral information up in an environment supported by ads.
Expensive ads. Paid for by airlines.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.