Given all that has occurred between the airlines and the GDSs in 2006 -- or all that has occurred between them in the past week for that matter -- I was surprised to hear Tom Klein, group president for Sabre Travel Network and Sabre Airline Solutions, express what amounted to profound sympathy for the airlines.

Klein had sympathy for American, sympathy for United and even sympathy for Air Canada, whose Tango fares were pulled from Sabre, leading the GDS to retaliate with a biased display.

He was sympathetic to airlines even as he sipped a double espresso, ordered to revive himself after spending 12 hours on a plane between Dallas/Fort Worth and Newark, which ultimately arrived at 5 oclock that morning, seven hours late.

Airline behavior -- its imposition of fees on the people who sell its tickets, its chest-pounding to the GDSs that distribute its products, its support of the new-entrant GDSs and fragmentation of distribution -- is rational, Klein argued.

The airline industry is under more pressure than most big companies can imagine, Klein said. After theyve come out of meetings dealing with their pension problems, its rational for them to make these decisions, because their concern is not about GDSs or travel agents. Theyre worried about their employees and their companies, and they look at every penny they spend.

Kleins understanding of airline woes is, at heart, also rational. Not only does Sabres core business model require that airlines distribute through its reservations system, but Sabre is also the largest provider of software services to the airline industry. To be unsympathetic to airlines would be akin to being unsympathetic to oxygen.

But Klein asserted that Sabres relationships and products for travel agents reflect a concurrent sympathy for, and understanding of, travel agencies.

In fact, he said, through its ownership of Travelocity, Sabre is a travel agency. Agents, too, are integral to its core business model, and Klein hinted that the outstanding issues between the GDS and American Airlines revolve around issues that dont give agents enough protection.

If its unbalanced, it wont work, he said.

Kleins comments suggested that it was ironic that Sabre would be, for the moment, at a disadvantage with travel agents who are wary about Sabre assurances regarding content, but only because Sabre is still negotiating the hardest of all the GDSs on behalf of travel agents.

It may be that agencies listen to our story and what they hear is, Trust me, Klein said. But weve done things that seem reasonable and balanced in the past.

That last statement is made, of course, from Sabres viewpoint. Sabre, dependent upon both airlines and travel agents for survival, no doubt seeks balance.

But the antagonism between these primary constituents may lead both to conclude that the GDS talks out of both sides of its mouth. Sabre seeks concessions from two parties with oppositional interests when the stakes are particularly high on both sides.

In fact, because the outcome of these negotiations might affect the very existence of their businesses -- agencies care about their employees, too -- its easy to see how agencies and airlines each would look at the GDS and say, Youre either with us or against us. 

And on top of all this, there are the interests of the fulcrum: Sabre has its own nest to feather.

Ultimately, Sabre must believe that its strength lies in its size. In a competitive set where differentiation is difficult to establish, Sabre has demonstrated it can gain market share.

Whether Sabre can translate that strength into concessions from American has yet to be seen. But the rumors alleging that Worldspan will be the first GDS to announce a program with no base incentives might reflect what sort of balance can be achieved by the weak. When times are desperate, one may well be tempted to strike a deal with the devil.

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