Fragmentation sounds like something that just can't be good. To be fragmented is to be broken, busted or incomplete. With the exception of things like coconuts, we don't want things that are fragmented, do we?


Thoughts such as these may have been on the mind of the late aviation publisher Wayne Parrish, who, in 1944, brought out the American Aviation Traffic Guide, which became the Official Airline Guide, the global reference for all airline route and schedule information.

For decades, the OAG, as it came to be known, was the essential tool for travel agents and commercial users of air transportation. The size of a big-city phone book, it was, in its bulky, primitive way, the industry's first comparison shopping guide. Call it full content.

We point this out only to note that there seems to be some persistent cultural tic in the airline business that puts great store in having all the industry's "content" in one place. We can trace it back to at least 1944.

Against this background, American has emerged as the airline industry's leading villain, for pursuing a distribution strategy that it believes to be in its self-interest but that may produce "fragmentation" for others.

Readers of a certain age might recall something similar in the 1970s, when American and United began wiring travel agencies with reservations terminals.

By moving away from the OAG's printed page, with its chronological flight listings, to a Sabre or Apollo screen that gave a preference to AA or UA services, the airlines could present their content to agents in a way that served their own purposes rather than those of the aggregator. You could call it a direct connection.

Everybody knew the airlines were acting in their own self-interest, but they could also make the case that the innovations, including the ticket printer, would make travel agents more efficient. They weren't wrong.

At first there was consternation. Critics said the result would be inequality, the development of "dealerships" or "captive" agencies. Or you could call it fragmentation.

As more agents became automated and as airline pricing became more volatile, and as the res systems evolved into global distribution systems, agents became extraordinarily efficient distributors of airline tickets. Any traveler who wanted to shop for airfares went to an agent. And any airline that wanted any business from agents got itself into the res systems. It was a beautiful thing.

Then the Internet happened, and the display of aggregated content went from being the specialized tool of the travel professional to the Web surfer's birthright -- and now to the handheld app.

In short, the aggregation of airline content no longer empowers agents as it once did.

Many agents now advise clients they can do certain things faster or cheaper on the Internet, a form of fragmentation that agents tolerate in the interest of empowering consumers or avoiding unproductive drudgery. But many still chafe at the idea of telling clients to "do it yourself."

Unlike the OAG and the GDS, the direct-connect strategy, with its promise of a new way of selling, hasn't demonstrated its value to agents. That is American's challenge, and given the industry's 67-year history of fragmentation-bashing, it looks to be a daunting one.

The continuing challenge for the agency community in the Internet age remains to demonstrate its value both to the supplier community and to travelers.

Undue resistance to change will do neither.
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