News from Travel Technology Update: IATA waded into the controversy over the optimal method of distributing ancillary products, claiming that GDSs “are unable to handle the rapidly increasing range of product offerings from airlines.”

In an article in its Airlines International magazine, IATA said that “a GDS screen today looks much like a screen from the 1970s.” The article included lengthy quotes from Montie Brewer, former chief executive officer of Air Canada and a long-time critic of GDSs.

Brewer, a member of the advisory board of Everbread, an air fare shopping company, touts direct connections between airlines and travel management companies as the best means of merchandising and distributing ancillary products.

“The current situation is harmful to airlines and the consumer,” he was quoted as saying. “Airlines are becoming increasingly sophisticated in the types of product they are offering, and consumers are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their purchase decisions. The frustration is that these trends are being stymied by the outdated systems of the GDSs.”

The article also stated that IATA is creating “a single industry standard platform, connecting airlines, agencies and consumers and facilitating the correct information flow.

The characterizations of GDSs as old technology were repeated in a “Commentary” opinion piece authored by Tony Tyler, IATA director general and chief executive officer, in Air Transport World, a magazine for airline managers. Tyler said carriers are developing products such as lounge access, premium seating and preferred boarding, but “the inability of GDSs to display these enhancements properly, however, is a real barrier to innovation and to the industry’s ability to generate a return on its investments.”

The Airlines International piece prompted a joint response from the Interactive Travel Services Association, which represents GDSs and online travel agencies in the U.S., and the European Technology & Travel Services Association, which performs a similar function in Europe.

“It is understandable that certain distribution service providers, for commercial reasons, wish to downplay the value the GDSs are bringing to airlines and travelers around the globe. However, we find it regrettable that IATA endorses such isolated providers and publishes an utterly biased article in its flagship magazine without even giving the GDSs an opportunity to make their case in what is in our view a very important discussion about the future of distribution.”

In a separate letter to Tyler, Chris Kroeger, senior vice president of Sabre Travel Network, rebutted the claim that GDS technology is old and outdated. “Speaking for Sabre, nothing could be further from the truth,” he wrote. “Our technology environment includes over 8,000 open system servers with an average age of less than three years, processing over a billion web-service and XML transactions a day with sub-second response time.”

Kroeger said the Sabre Red Workspace, Sabre’s standard desktop for travel agencies, is “a modern, graphical-enabled agent interface built on the same, open source Eclipse Rich Client platform used by eBay and NASA.”

IATA’s claim that GDS screens are outdated is similar to the stance taken by the Open AXIS Group, an organization formed in 2010 to promote direct XML connections between airlines and travel agencies. In its “Distribution 2.0” white paper, it stated that “the current system limits airline competitive differentiation largely to ‘schedule and price.’ As such, the airline product becomes fully commoditized, forcing the airlines to continually compete on price alone.”

Last year, Jim Young, executive director of Open AXIS, issued a press release saying that based on discussions at industry events devoted to the topic, “it became clear that a typical travel agency cryptic ‘green screen’ will not handle new airline products and services coming down this new XML connection.”

However, most travel agencies today are not using the “typical green screen.”

The Amadeus Selling Platform and the Sabre Red Workspace, the companies’ standard agency desktops, offer graphical user interfaces. The Travelport Universal Desktop also offers a GUI, as does the Amadeus One desktop for corporate agencies in North America. 

All the systems offer agents the option of switching to the cryptic format. Experienced agents can perform certain functions, such as intricate itinerary searches, much more quickly using cryptic commands. Switching between cryptic and GUI is much easier today than it was in the past.

Even when agents are using cryptic commands on what looks like a green screen, they are actually using a GUI that is designed to look like a green screen. Mousing over items can produce pop-ups containing text or photographs.

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