Cyndi Hunter is committed to making it easier for corporate clients and their travel management companies to figure out what they are spending on air travel.
As director of global accounts at United Airlines, Hunter has an interest in keeping her clients happy. "There's nothing worse than not having an answer," she said.
The waters of corporate travel have been considerably roiled by the trend toward airline merchandising, particularly the unbundling of fares.
When travelers must pay to check bags, buy a blanket, have an inflight meal or reserve a seat that will accommodate their height – and when all those items are purchased separately from the ticket – it gets complicated.
Concur and TRX, two companies that provide expense management technology, are coming up with ways to search credit card data for the relevant data. But, Hunter thought, "wouldn't it be great if we, the airlines, could improve the outflow of data to the credit card companies?"
The credit card companies were a major piece of the puzzle, she said, because most of the post-fare purchases are made at the airport. So that seemed like a logical place to start. "It seemed like it would be pretty straightforward," Hunter said.
But the issues turned out to be far more complex than she had anticipated when she became co-chair of a Global Business Travel Association task force formed to address the issue.
First of all, the airline industry needs to come up with standard descriptors. "There are 100 different ways that we say 'first bag,'" she said.
Then there are airlines that simply don't provide enough information. A charge may simply state the airline's name, not whether that $15 was for one checked bag or for two adult beverages.
And there are quirks: If you watch DirecTV in flight, the credit card statement says the payee is JetBlue (it owns DirecTV).
"When we started the discussion, we were primarily talking with Concur, Mastercard and AirPlus," she said.
Hunter soon discovered that even if you could get the airlines to align their descriptors and codes – and get them to populate all the fields of a transaction correctly and in a uniform fashion — you would still have to go through the same process with the credit card company, the acquiring bank, the expense management company and every other entity that touches the transaction.
A major issue was not just the number of companies involved; it was getting the project onto the radar of the various companies' IT departments.
Anyone who has ever worked with a large company's IT department knows the challenges.
"If I simply want to request a change on a credit card table, the queue could be six to nine months," Hunter said.
"Everyone wants their project done yesterday. So we have to find the processors that are more amenable to moving it up in their queue," she said.
Hunter has since resigned from the GBTA task force, but she continues to work on the issue.
She has come to the realization that it could take years to address the problem fully. But given that it took about a dozen years for the airlines to accomplish interline electronic ticketing, she is not discouraged.
"The good news is that we are still able to influence the direction of this, and we're all working with each other," she said.