The recent flap over Air Canada's withdrawal of its Tango fares from the GDSs is unlikely to dampen airlines' enthusiasm for the kind of "product differentiation" that Tango represents. And far from being opposed to the concept, some of the GDS companies are making strides in their attempts to accommodate the airlines' desires. Amadeus plans to be aggressive in this new arena, Stephane Pingaud, senior manager of airline marketing and sales, said, and plans to roll out new merchandising features beginning next year.
"We are working in a number of directions to enhance the way we merchandise airline products," he said. Amadeus embarked on a fact-finding mission with airlines around the world last year to determine how best to "improve our proposition," Pingaud said. The results gave Amadeus a strong indication that airlines want GDS companies to play a role in maximizing airlines' revenues, and one of the best ways to achieve that goal is to "integrate an upselling capability, similar to the way airlines market themselves to the end consumer," he said.
More than half of the European carriers said "stronger merchandising power" was the main reason they invest in dedicated agency Web sites.
"When we asked them what they thought GDSs should concentrate on, 52% said they wanted us improve the way we present their product," Pingaud said. "They told us, 'We're investing millions in the inflight experience, so make sure people know about it.'"
Another request was, "Can you replicate on your agency channel the way we merchandise ourselves? Can you give us the ability to influence yield?" One obvious obstacle is the traditional GDS green screen, which does not lend itself to differentiation beyond fares. But 82% of Amadeus agents are now equipped with its graphical interface, Amadeus Selling Platform, formerly called Vista, and "that allows us to go in some other directions," Pingaud said. Amadeus is applying some of the techniques it developed for airline Web sites. Among them is a calendar-based display that shows a range of fares. Customers can choose their travel dates based on how much they are willing to pay.
"Our product will accommodate 10 fare families," Pingaud said. Since many carriers are looking to simplify their fare structures, that limitation should not be an issue, he said.
Currently, Amadeus is working with airlines to determine what the common elements of each fare family should be. "We need guidelines around the components so it makes sense to the agency subscriber," Pingaud said. "We need to strike a balance between flexibility and standardization."
The initial display would be a multicarrier display, Pingaud said. When appropriate, agents would be directed to carrier-specific pages.
He noted that the new features will have an impact on agents' workflow. "The way they buy the air product will change," he said, and they may require some education to develop a response to indicators of upsell displays.
Amadeus also is developing icons to indicate products that airlines would like to highlight, such as flat beds in first or business class, as well as partnerships with hotels or other suppliers.
Cendant found itself "right in the thick" of the airlines' move toward product differentiation when it helped Northwest develop Coach Choice, which allows passengers to pay $15 to secure an exit row or far-forward aisle seat at the point of online check-in.
Steve Smith, chief information officer, global agency and airline solutions, for Cendant Travel Distribution Services, said the company is working on ways to complement those kinds of services at the travel agency point of sale. "We want to be able to drive them throughout the system regardless of channel," he said.
Cendant's Galileo agents will see some types of airline products by launching into a Web browser; others will appear in a pop-up that agents can generate via a keystroke on the green screen. Smith noted that many agents simply feel more efficient in a green screen environment, so Cendant has opted to work around that.
For Sabre, the airlines' current desire for product differentiation is somewhat ironic.
It began working on ways that airlines could present messages to agents several years ago, "but historically, there was not a lot of uptake," Chris Kroeger, senior vice president for North America, said.
Sabre found the concept had more appeal among its hotel customers, "so we elected to build upon those messages," he said.
Now that Sabre has learned how to present differentiation on the hotel side -- its Upsell and soon-to-be-launched Cross-Sell products are examples -- "we will bring it back to the airline side, coming full circle," he said.
Kroeger said the key is to find the right balance between the green screen that so many agents prefer and the graphic interface that will better enable product displays.Technological advancements are closing the gap," he said.
"We have been very focused on this as we introduce MySabre," a graphic interface that he said "surrounds" the green screen.
As travel agents develop new skill sets, Kroeger said, "the graphical side will play a more active role."