"Content is king." Or is it? The driver of the last two rounds of airline-GDS negotiations was the perceived need for subscribers, particularly travel management companies, to have access to full airline content.
But the No. 2 executive at Amadeus believes the drive for full content may have shifted the balance of power between airlines and travel agencies, to the detriment of those who sought it.
David Jones, Amadeus' executive vice president-commercial, said the insistence on full content has given "all the leverage to suppliers, at huge costs for travel management companies."
And the irony, he said, is that in many cases, travel management companies have paid for access to content that "serves no useful internal purpose."
In a wide-ranging interview with TTU, Jones noted that GDSs have never had 100% of the airline and hotel content available from various sources throughout the world. The idea of a universal content provider is simply unrealistic, he said.
"But we have had more than enough for almost every user," he said. Last year's negotiations between U.S. airlines and the GDS companies resulted in "opt-in" programs that essentially require subscribers to pay for access to full content from the major U.S. carriers.
Amadeus was a notably reluctant player in this new world order. When it finally launched its content-access program on Jan. 1 -- the last GDS company to do so -- it noted that it had sought "progressive approaches to meeting airlines' economic objectives, but adoption rates of other similar programs have shown that the market has accepted program access fees in favor of a commitment to full content and protection from airline segment surcharges."
Travel management companies' belief that they required full access was bolstered every time a customer found a better price on the Internet, Jones said. A more reasoned approach to the issue, he said, is offered up by American Express.
"American Express says, 'We provide content that is relevant to our customers' needs.' Retailers have to think in terms of relevance, not access to fares and inventory that they may never actually use," Jones said. Meanwhile, Amadeus is working to boost its content on all fronts. Last year, it launched Amadeus Ticketless Access, a level of participation in its GDS that is designed for low-cost carriers. Ticketless Access enables low-cost carriers to display their fares and schedules alongside those of full-service airlines in the GDS. A booking is made through the carrier's existing reservations system, so the usual €3 to €5 GDS booking fee does not apply. "This is the way of the future," Jones said.
Amadeus also is boosting its hotel content; since October, it has added 5,000 hotel properties for a total of 75,000.
In addition, Jones said, Amadeus is working on the creation of "a real retailing platform" from which airlines could up-sell, cross-sell and deploy other merchandising techniques. Jones believes that despite the decline of the agency population in the U.S. -- a phenomenon that could eventually be repeated in Europe and other regions of the world -- GDSs will remain a strong distribution channel.
The agencies that survive are of a "much higher" quality, he said. "They know strategy. They will be around for a long while."
Amadeus hasn't adopted the online market quite as religiously as Worldspan has, but it does view the online travel agency market as a key element of its future.
The company touts its pricing tools as one of "a multitude of ways in which we differentiate ourselves" from other GDS companies, Jones said. "The proof of the pudding is the ever larger percentage of online bookings we are getting in Europe," he said.
In addition, he said, "the established distribution channel is phenomenal" in terms of what it can do for an airline's growth plans.
An airline has alternatives within its home market; its brand and its services are known.
But when an established airline opens a new route, for example, it benefits greatly from the agency market that is already in place in the new points it wishes to serve, Jones said. The further from its home market, the greater the benefit of the system to the airline. Connections with a mere three or four systems connect the airline to the world.
In addition to airlines, "there are online agencies, big corporate travel managers, cruise lines, big specialist tour operators and huge numbers of niche players," Jones said.
"As far ahead as we can see, this is a good business,"