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Focus on... the customer

On the 1st November, IAG (that is British Airways et alia) introduce a charge of £8 per sector booked, if you use a traditional GDS system. You can avoid this cost by booking on the British Airways (or as relevant) website or by any other means that employs the NDC system for booking flights.

I want to make this clear, if your booking entails a three sector itinerary, then the "Q" charge (a nice, transparent way of burying yet another "carrier imposed surcharge") would be £24.00, no matter if you book the client in Coach, World Traveler Plus, Business or First Class (unless it is the full-fare, all singing, all dancing variation of that cabins' fare).

We know that most leisure travelers, if they seek a cheap weekend away are more than likely to book online; we also know that most half-decent-sized firms, who employ their executives and other staff to worry about making money for their firm and not to estimate the most efficient way of getting around three capitals in the USA, for example, will use a travel agent in one form or the other. So why, one wonders, penalise those clients paying a half decent fare?

The travel tech world is salivating at the prospect of NDC. They see it as an answer to the one thing that has irritated the hell out of them for ages - How can an industry as involved in something as complex as travel, manage so well on late 1980's-ish tech? They proclaim NDC as the opportunity for airlines to become better retailers. Even though the first move of, in this case, BA is to actually penalise those customers who pay them the most money - Brilliant!

Good retailing is about finding an efficient balance between the needs of the customer and the needs of the retailer. The imposition of fees on what are effectively, the best customers is a fundamental mistake; for it places the needs of the firm way above the needs of the customer. This stems from failing to grasp the role of the agent (and for many airlines, frankly, the role of the customer). An agent is not an inconvenience placed between any airline and its customers - the agent is paid by the customer, not the airline - and agents exist as an extension of the reason already mentioned - travel is complicated (and being made even more complicated by the day) and client firms pay their staff to produce results for their employer - it is not cost effective for the client to have their staff distracted from their main task by functions which can be more efficiently and more cost-effectively undertaken by a third party (aka a travel agent)

Good retailing is about understanding the customer, not owning the customer. Owning the customer comes through understanding the customer. Understanding comes from attracting and keeping customers, attracting and keeping customers comes from providing the right goods or service at the right time at the right price. This is called "loyalty". If you get this process right, then you will not need to worry about getting ownership of the customer - you will already own them

Good wholesalers or service providers do not always make good retailers and vica versa. To quote the much-mentioned Amazon, Amazon do not manufacture anything, Amazon do what Amazon are very good at - selling.

Many others see NDC as restriction of choice. In order to avoid what could be a not insubstantial charge, one could use the airline website. Of course, the only thing BA will offer for sale is, well.... BA. If you are going to the USA, United won't even get a look in. How do you compare fares? You would need to visit several websites before you can achieve a fare for comparison, then you would have to go a long way through the booking process, adding in bags and seats and possibly even your credit card details, before a reliable figure is achieved. Further, the real comparison of fare has nothing to do with bags and seats - it has to do with (possible) refunds and flexibility. You may get a seat for less on BA - but if another airline will offer a similar fare *but* that other airline's version is fully refundable and the BA one is not, which would be better?

NDC has been taken up by agent system suppliers. The issue here is twofold - Firstly, How reliable is NDC, and how many airlines use it? Secondly, How can I trial the system?

Personally, I could not care how I book my clients. Be it through a GDS or through NDC it is to me, as they would say in German "wurst egal". My requirements are that if I book a five sector itinerary, or even a 2 sector itinerary, I need to know that when the client goes to the airport, I can be 110% sure that stuff will happen.

I have looked around for someone who will let me try NDC - all players have very nice websites, all written in a manner which may mean a lot to a travel tech person (or worse - a travel marketing type) but means nothing at all to an actual travel agent. At this time, therefore, I do not know how many airlines NDC covers and how it covers them; I do not know if NDC can present raw facts (as does a GDS) or if it presents information wrapped up in tedious, turgid, point-and-click format all embellished with distractions along the lines of: "Hey! Fly with us and we will give you a free bun!"

An open mind, I will keep. If airlines wish agents to use NDC - fine. Offer the opportunity to trial the system and we will see how we get on from there.

But, above all, penalising those clients who pay you the most money, is not good retailing.

(Murray Harrold is a homeworking business travel agent. If you would like to have your travel organised by an agent backed by an American Express agency, with full reporting systems, call 07768 180314)

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