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Piggy in the Middle

Pig in the middle Picture by Cliff Donaldson

Over the last two weeks, two very interesting articles have appeared in the Travel Industry magazine "Travel Weekly". The first referring to remarks by head of BA global sales, Stephen Humphreys and the second, highlighting a stout rebuttal from ETTSA secretary, Christoph Klenner.

ETTSA, for the record, stands for "European Travel and Technology Services Association".

The esteemed Mr Humphreys talks about "moving away from restrictions of GDSs" and then waffles on about "Distribution is at the centre of the digital space, now" (whatever that means) whereas the equally esteemed Mr Klenner refers to airlines systematic discrimination in airline distribution. Mr. Klenner does at least speak in English : "... there is only a minor cost difference between direct and indirect distribution" Yup. Even I can understand that.

Stuck in between these giants of our industry (not the people - for I mean the industry elements they represent - travel supply and travel technology) is the travel agent and more importantly, their customers (that's customers of both the agencies and the airlines). Agents and these/ their customers are the piggy-in-the-middle.

What's more galling, is that it is not our or their fault.

I should mention that American Airlines took a rather different approach, by not imposing surcharges but by offering an incentive to book, say, on their website.

So who is worst affected and why?

Agents are not that interested in short haul, point to point, walk in customers. Nearly all - probably all - business travel agents work for their clients where the actual booking of travel is really rather a minor part of what they do. The business travel agents' main functions surround accounting for, reporting on and policing what is booked. Further, business agents are employed as they have the skill sets to re-book people, change things, deal with crises and generally, pick up the pieces when things go pear-shaped (and generally speaking, this happens more times than I would care to mention).

Agents act on short garbled messages from places with poor connectivity (and that may be down to circumstance, rather than simply "where") they act on messages from the back of taxis or moments snatched from between meetings. Corporates employ agents because they get stuff done. Airlines cannot do this. It is the travel agent, not an airline, that goes the extra mile.

Who are these agency customers? This is interesting, because these customers, caught in between airlines and GDS systems throwing bricks at each other, are some of the airlines best customers. They travel business class or premium economy or first. If they travel economy, it is at whatever cost gets them to that meeting, which meeting starts at 11:00 am. Having a flowery system which offers a flight with a few bells and whistles, which arrives at 11:30 am, is pointless, as is, frankly, whoever's name is written on the side of the aircraft. It is like saying:"wait for the bus at 10:00 am, rather than take the 09:45 am bus .... you'll miss your train but Hey! .... the later bus is a new Volvo, the earlier one is an ageing Mercedes!"

True, as Mr Klenner mentions, the GDS systems are not doing themselves any favours and agents are sure it is time to bang some distribution heads together.

Agents don't mind what they use to conduct their day to day work. Whatever we are asked to use, however, must be fit for purpose and not a work in progress. Travel tech types may think how they present NDC is all very clever, but did they ever stop to ask the agents? Certainly, it is not right to penalise agents for using a neutral system, which presents the (raw) facts agents need, when the alternative offered, restricts any offering, is cumbersome to use and does not have the global functionality for the smooth conduct of agency business.

Let re-phrase that: Agents don't mind what they use to conduct their day to day work, when dealing with the (any) airline's top customers. To penalise the agent is to penalise ones' top customers. In any book, that is a pretty stupid way forward.

(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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