While the rest of the business world moved to graphical user interfaces (GUIs) decades ago, the GDSs of today, descendants of airline computer res systems that were technology pioneers half a century ago, are still rooted in the world of the so-called green screen.
There are three basic reasons GDSs are so late to modern computing technology: habit, functionality and money. But the surge in airline ancillary products and services could well be the trend that finally gives GUIs a deal-breaking advantage over the old green screen.
In the near future, travel agents will get the ability not just to comparison shop ancillaries but to base that comparison shopping on the traveler's frequent flyer status.
On the horizon: attribute-element-based searching -- that is, the ability to search for a seat and the ancillaries that are important to that client. Depending on the traveler, for example, that might mean a seat with extra legroom or WiFi.
Today, an agent adds those criteria late in the booking process and sometimes after booking the ticket.
Six decades of green-screeners
It's been 60 years since C.R. Smith, president of American Airlines, found himself sitting next to R. Blair Smith, a sales rep for IBM, on a flight from Los Angeles to New York. That chance encounter of the two Smiths in 1953 began a conversation that laid the groundwork for Sabre, the first airline res system.
Eventually, it was followed by other pioneering res systems: Braniff's Cowboy, TWA's PARS, Delta's DATAS and Eastern's SODA and others.
As for why has the green screen has had such staying power in travel, "It was really efficient," said Jim Davidson, president and CEO of Farelogix, which builds links between airlines and their distribution outlets.
Davidson said he has tried to find any other industry that is using green screens but has failed so far.
"Maybe auto parts," he mused.
The term "green screen" derives from the earliest days of computing, when monitors were monochromatic cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, which could render only text characters. The most popular color of phosphor used in these monitors was green, although agent today can choose from a variety of colors. After the introduction of GUI computing with the Apple MacIntosh and, later, Microsoft Windows, workers who continued to use the old CRT technology came to be known as "green-screeners" or "greenies."
Green-screen technology still reigns supreme today for many agents because in the hands of a skilled operator, it's faster, more flexible and can do more. So even today, agents who do any kind of complex air bookings can be far more productive with a green screen than with a GUI.
But even the agents most devoted to their cryptic codes are no longer working totally in green-screen mode, because the GDSs have created hybrids that enable agents to jump over to a content-rich GUI format to book insurance, cruises, tours, hot-air balloon rides and other travel products that can't be defined in 256 characters, the limit of early mainframe computer data fields.
With Sabre, the switch is as simple as clicking on a "graphical view" tab. Sabre said it has about 6,500 unique users of its graphical view each month, a number that has been rising steadily. Its Sabre Red Workspace platform has 270,000 users.
Amadeus users click on a tab that takes them out of the old green screen into a graphical environment that lets them book hotels, cruises and vacations. And Travelport's Smartpoint, which most U.S. customers are adopting now, will by year's end enable users to click on a code for a flight and get a GUI pop-up with text and images that illustrate an airline seat.
Today's agents can easily be in both worlds at once, with monochrome text at the top of the screen and a website on the bottom, and still access all that content via a single portal. GDSs can bring content from multiple sources to the agent desktop.
But many agents routinely return to the green screen. Amadeus reported that it sees "the majority of agents using cryptic formats." Debra Iannaci, director of public relations for Amadeus, said that other agents use a combination of cryptic and GUI. The most frequent GUI users are new Amadeus customers and new entrants to the industry, she said. But even new entrants occasionally spurn GUI for "Mad Men"-era technology.
"Even the new ones who started out with GUI ended up saying, 'Well, I'm just going to put the time in and learn the green-screen formats,'" said Ryan McGredy, president and managing owner of Moraga Travel in Moraga, Calif., and president of ASTA's Young Professionals Society, a group whose members are under the age of 40.
"They can do more, they can have more control," McGredy said. "And once you put in the time to learn it, it is faster than submit, click, click. These are people in their 20s and 30s."
Besides, said McGredy, who came to travel from the technology industry, "The GUI that is offered for the GDSs is not a GUI that is familiar to this generation of worker. It is not like what modern software runs on."
There are a number of things agents can do in the green screen that they cannot do in a GUI. For example, Scott Booth, vice president of distribution strategy for Tzell Travel, said agents who use a GUI can't exchange a ticket or build a manual fare, something corporate agents do to help their clients maximize their opportunities for upgrades, mileage and other uses.
Technically, it's possible to build a GUI interface for just about any task, said James Horvath, chief technology officer for Revelex, which builds GUI booking systems for leisure travel, including Travelport's GUI Cruise & Tour Web-based leisure shopping system.
"You want an L class so you can upgrade or qualify for a particular set of points," Horvath said. "And on top of that, I have an unused ticket where I can do a $100 exchange. Who's going to build a GUI interface for that?"
In short, variables can change from ticket to ticket. That's a lot of different interfaces to write, and that costs money.
"If there was money in it, I'd create the GUI," Horvath said. "But there's not a nickel in it. The airlines have removed the profit."
When airlines dropped across-the-board commissions for airfares (they still pay commissions but on a targeted basis), many agents no longer wanted to sell air, Horvath said. Leisure agents still do sell air, sometimes reluctantly, but when it gets complicated, they turn it over to their air desk or have their clients do it themselves.
But GUI has to do more than offer equivalent functionality for agents to switch.
"If [agents] know how to do it in green screen and the graphical view doesn't do it better or faster, they won't leave the green screen," Booth said. "There has to be a compelling reason to leave it."
Davidson agreed that agents won't switch until GUI offers greater functionality.
Sales of ancillaries are poised to give GUI that advantage. The old green screen cannot handle airline ancillary services the way a GUI can because in addition to text, a GUI can use icons, images and video to describe an increasingly varied set of airline services and attributes.
Ancillaries cannot be fully explained in a grid. They require multiple levels of display, with a basic listing of airline choices and accompanying ancillaries illustrated with icons, with the ability to click on or hover over an icon to get more detail about those products.
GDSs are now getting the agreements that will enable them to do all this.
Sabre just signed an agreement with United that will enable the carrier to tailor a fare specifically to an individual passenger based on personal information about that passenger. Although details are still being worked out, United will be able to do more merchandising of its products to clients through Sabre under this agreement.
In April, Travelport announced its new Merchandising Platform. It enables comparison shopping of airlines' ancillary services, along with fares and availability, on a single screen. It gathers ATPCo data (the traditional source of information about fares and availability), marries it with XML-sourced data about ancillary services and fees and displays the aggregate content from both on the agent's desktop.
And Amadeus just signed an agreement last month with American Airlines that will enable it to not just offer ancillaries (it now sells ancillaries for 14 airlines, but is still in the process of rolling these out to U.S. agents) but to personalize offers to the customer.
All three GDSs are already selling ancillary services for dozens of airlines, although these are not universally available in all markets, and major U.S. airlines are only now coming online with their ancillaries. Still, change is coming, and this could be change that will finally give agents the compelling reason they need to abandon their green screens.
"Once that ancillary capability is universally available, cryptic is at a huge disadvantage over GUI," said Bob Offutt, senior technology analyst with PhoCusWright.
Some agents are already booking ancillaries in the GDSs using workarounds. Janine Kidder, corporate manager for Travel Leaders in Durham, N.C., said she can book ancillaries now for some major airlines. She uses a workaround that enables her to book a standard seat for her client in her green screen but then takes her to the airline website, where she can book a seat with extra legroom.
The workaround automatically populates the client record in the GDS with that new seat and is shown in the invoice the agent sends to the website. It's not perfect, she said, but it works. Usually.
The GDSs all are working on systems that will replace these workarounds with more efficient solutions.
Travelport's Universal Desktop, being rolled out to select pilot customers, will give agents a list of fares from multiple airlines and icons for accompanying ancillaries. Users will then click on ancillaries for more detail about them.
Such "hovers," as Steven Ratcliffe, product director, merchandising for Travelport, calls them, mean airlines can choose what kind of detail they want to provide about their varied products. It also gives agents a way to drill down for more detail on airlines' products, helping them give their clients a better picture of what their choices are.
This sort of multilevel display is necessary because airlines have similar ancillary services -- fare families, seats with extra legroom, preferred seat locations, preferred boarding, etc. -- but not identical. A grid won't work, but GUI, with its multilayered capabilities, can give agents a way to tell their clients about their choices.
"The airlines want to provide a smorgasbord of product that is noncomparable," said Timothy O'Neil-Dunne, managing partner for T2 Impact. "Nobody on the supply side is interested in making comparison shopping easy."
Hence the need for systems that can help agents compare airline offers that are similar but not identical.
Airlines will be able to personalize offers to clients based on their frequent flyer numbers. A frequent flyer, for example, might qualify for a discount for a seat with extra legroom.
Recognizing that this takes time -- adding ancillaries to a booking can easily double or triple the time it takes to make that booking -- GDSs are giving agents ways to speed the process. Travelport, for example, is giving agents a way to hand off booking an ancillary to the client. Agents can book a basic seat for the customer and email them a link that connects the client to the itinerary using Viewtrip.
The customers can then choose the upgrades themselves.
This is important because agencies don't earn segment fees on ancillaries -- they only earn them on the tickets themselves -- so ancillaries present a double disincentive to agencies because they take more time and agents aren't paid for that time.
The GDSs are all working on putting ancillaries and merchandising at points of sale.
"They all have pretty much the same technological capability," Offutt said, adding that the three GDSs are each on somewhat different timelines. But the key point, he said, is that once all these GDSs have the capability to book ancillaries at the point of sale, everyone -- agents, online travel agencies and travel management companies with self-booking tools -- are "going to have to change their practices."
"That is not trivial," he said.
There will be learning curves. The new systems will take time. Adding in ancillaries makes booking an airline ticket more complex and time-consuming. meaning that a GUI is a double-edged sword, said O'Neil-Dunne.
"GUI does help you to do this better, because you can visually see more information through iconography than you can in textual," he said. "On the one hand, it is great that GUI can explain this, but then you have to take the time to read it."
And there is still concern that moving to GUI would mean that expert agents skilled at manipulating the intricacies of airline fares using their cryptic codes would lose that ability to "dive deep."
Farelogix's Davidson countered by saying that a GUI can offer that kind of functionality.
"Why should just an experienced agent know the right way to get the right answer in a GDS?" he asked. A GUI can give an agent the option of clicking on a button that says "Show me more" or by clicking on an "advanced search" tab, he said.
"One is doing it long hand, the other is point and click," he said in comparing a green screen to a GUI.
"The basics have to be in there," he said. If an agent can't do an exchange in GUI, "forget it," he said.
But GUI keeps moving forward. Authenticated search is just the beginning. Ancillary-element-based search will soon mean looking for seats that are exactly what a customer wants, rather than having to move farther down the booking path to see those options.
Farelogix has filed for a patent on that capability, and Davidson estimated that it is currently about 18 months away.
Even so, history tells us that transitions are bumpy.
Andrew Menkes, CEO of Partnership Travel Consulting, started his career at TWA in the 1970s. Back then, in the days when advance seat assignments had yet to become a reality, TWA also used a hybrid system. It included telephones, mainframe computers, keypunch cards and a blackboard for tracking which flights were full.
Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly.