Travel professionals are experts in the field of travel, so it makes sense that you would want access to comparative, all-in pricing to meet your customers' expectations.
For decades you have relied on the GDSs to do just that. Yet a few years back, the airlines began unbundling core components, such as seat assignments and checked bags, from the base price of an airfare.
The problem this presents for you is that it is no longer possible to do an efficient apple-to-apples comparison of the true price of transportation, nor is it possible to acquire and confirm purchasable seat assignments. All of this is chipping away at your ability to meet your customers' needs.
To help illustrate the impact of unbundling on your ability to provide accurate, comparative, all-in pricing advice, let's look at this hypothetical example.
Say you have a retired couple that has purchased a cruise from you to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary, and they need your assistance obtaining air tickets to the port. They also know at the time of ticket purchase that they will each have one carry-on and one checked bag, and they will also need seat assignments together.
In a basic search you find airfares on nonstop, roundtrip flights from Washington Reagan National to Fort Lauderdale priced at $197 for Airline A, $205 for Airline B and $228 for Airline C. Yet which airline really offers the best value for your customers?
If the couple chooses Airline A, they will eventually pay $333 per person after bag and seat fees are factored in.
Airline B will cost $255.
Airline C at $228, which includes seat and first bag fees, is actually the best value for the couple. But how do you arrive at this all-in comparative analysis that says Airline C is the best value without spending an inordinate amount of your time researching individual airline websites?
You can't. While first- and second-bag fees are listed in the GDSs if you know where to look, carry-on and seat fees are not.
But this is not just about efficient access to comparative, all-in pricing information. Travel professionals need bookable content at the point of sale. (Click on the image, right, for a larger view of the graphic.)
For example, while there are some airlines that still offer "free" seat assignments, many airlines today have severely limited the number and location of free seats. These are often confined to a few middle seats at the back of the plane. The problem is that there is no way for you to access and confirm the "paid" seats in your GDS, even if your customers are willing to pay for them.
Or consider the scenario in which you are planning a Disney dream vacation for a family of five, which includes three small children. How do you accommodate this family if the only seat assignments you are allowed to confirm in your GDS are the limited "free" middle seats?
Do you give them five separate middle seats and tell them to fend for themselves at the airport? That appears to be the airlines' answer to this problem they have created.
Travel professionals today are caught in the middle. You want to accommodate your client's needs, but at what cost? Do you tell the customer to deal directly with the airline, or do you leave the GDS after ticketing and go to the airline's website to obtain ancillary content?
The former option might cause you to lose your customer, and the latter is inefficient and costly.
A transaction that once took seconds to complete in the GDS now takes 30 minutes. Will airlines even make such content available for tickets booked elsewhere than their own website?
In addition, the transaction is not automatically tracked in your back-office system, causing even more data entry for you when creating an invoice.
The reality is that the airlines have made your GDS into a partial tool for airfare searches by restricting your access to content. The bottom line is that it is crucial that you and the customers you represent have access to comparative, all-in pricing and bookable content at the point of sale.
Make your voice heard on this issue. Find out how you can be part of the process of reforming the way ancillary fee information is provided to consumers through the travel agency channel by visiting www.faretransparency.org.
John Pittman is ASTA's vice president of industry and consumer affairs and research.