In college, I read a book for physics class titled "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" by Thomas S. Kuhn (University of Chicago Press). It outlined how science moves forward with revolutionary theories to replace models that look increasingly flawed.
The more time we have to test an accepted scientific theory, Kuhn says, the more likely that exceptions ("anomalies") will surface. For example, Ptolemy's view of the universe, which had a stationary Earth at its center, prevailed for many centuries, and as long as observations of space were limited by the technology of the time, Ptolemaic theory could explain many observable phenomena.
Anomalies arose, but many of these were cleared up by Copernican theory, which placed the sun at the center of the universe.
Inevitably, anomalies again began to build. Conjectures by Galileo and Johannes Kepler on friction and motion advanced understanding of the universe in what Kuhn called "paradigm shifts." Isaac Newton brought their insights together with his own, forming an elegant, unified theory that seemed to explain just about everything that was observable at the time. And his theories held sway, for the most part, until Albert Einstein's proposals revolutionized how we think about the time, space and matter. And on and on it goes.
Virgin Galactic's plans notwithstanding, what does this have to do with the travel industry? While the examples above look at the broadest goal of science -- understanding the universe -- similar revolutions occur within every niche and discipline of business and industry, as well.
Like science, business naturally shies away from systems riddled with anomalies and moves toward elegant solutions. The rise of computerized reservation systems in the 1960s is a good example of a travel industry revolution. When they were first deployed, these systems seemed focused on one function: simplifying the booking and processing of airline tickets. But over time the GDSs collectively have worked hard to become the center of the travel universe, as vital as gravity, as fundamental as friction.
The difference between science and business, of course, is that the latter requires profit to function, and if a business at the hub of an industry's universe comes at what is perceived as too high a cost, the spokes that feed into the hub, and which must pay for it, will be on a quest for their own revolutionary alternative.
There was a point about five or six years ago when I thought that the GDSs, as an industry sector, were in danger of becoming as relevant as a Ptolemaic explanation of planetary motion.
First, airlines earnestly sought to bypass the GDSs with direct booking connections to online travel agencies and large travel management companies.
Then the so-called "alternative GDSs" emerged. They tried to portray GDSs as systems that had outlived their usefulness, so laden with "hairballs" (to use ITA CEO Jeremy Wertheimer's memorable phrase) that newer alternatives were their inevitable successors.
But, hairballs notwithstanding, what the GDSs still had going for them was that despite their complexities, the limitations of their legacy systems and, if critics were right, their inflexible-bordering-on-arrogant mindset, they were still more elegant than the alternatives. Dozens of direct connections with individual airlines are simply not as efficient as going to one central repository of information. If airline direct connections or the relatively limited functionality of the alternative GDSs were the existing status quo instead of the proposed alternatives, there would likely be a paradigm shift toward a GDS-like system.
I spent a day at Sabre headquarters earlier this month and came away believing that at some point, its own executives recognized that not only were competitors trying to replace them, but constituents -- primarily airlines and travel management companies -- were also seeking a revolutionary alternative. And they concluded that if there was going to be a revolution, they'd rather lead it than be its victim.
On the technical side, they are working with a homemade, vertical touch-screen (these aren't available commercially) not only to incorporate touch-screen functionality into the booking process but also with an eye toward incorporating cutting-edge "augmented reality" functions that will greatly expand Sabre's ability to exploit the information it collects.
They have also created a very nifty app for handhelds, TripCase, and are, they claim, leading the race to provide information, and ultimately booking capability, for unbundled airline fees.
But it's ultimately not the technology that represents the revolution. A paradigm shift seems to have occurred in Sabre executives' mindset. They've rethought what they bring to the travel environment in a very fundamental way.
A product that reflects this new consciousness is their recently released Return on Investment Calculator, which sets up algorithms designed to determine whether a business trip is actually necessary and what nontravel alternatives exist. In other words, they may support businesses in their decision not to travel. While they will recognize revenue from use of the ROI Calculator, if the company using the technology decides not to travel, there will be no segment booking fees for Sabre.
I have criticized Sabre in the past for what I saw as muddled or rigid thinking. But I will now give them credit. It's rare for an entrenched business to invest in products that might challenge the very principles that put it in the center of the universe.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter.