To start: a primer on the interplay among global distribution systems, airlines and travel management companies. TMCs, on which many corporate travel programs rely, use GDS infrastructure to shop for and book airline tickets. The GDSs, in turn, offer financial incentives to travel agencies for booking through their channels. The GDS operators also charge airlines for each transaction the GDSs facilitate.
The GDSs want access to airlines’ full collection of content, and they want the prices listed to be the same as those offered for display on other distribution channels, a concept known as fare parity. Further, GDSs seek assurances from airlines that airlines will not surcharge GDS bookings or otherwise discriminate against that GDS’s users. So, when an airline participates in a «full content» agreement, a GDS in exchange will discount the transaction fees it charges the airline.
One by one, though, Europe’s three biggest airline groups have veered from this long-running structure for legacy airlines. Each of the three has implemented a surcharge on bookings made through the GDS and opted out of their full content agreements. That surcharge is to be paid by travelers, or ultimately their companies, when booking tickets through travel agencies that access content from the GDSs. Lufthansa’s 16 euro per-ticket fee took effect in September 2015. International Airlines Group’s British Airways and Iberia enacted their own surcharge on Nov. 1 that amounts to $10 per fare component, generally defined as a one-way ticket or half a round-trip. And Air France-KLM has just joined the club, planning to launch its 11 euro per-way fee in April 2018. Ultimately, because these airlines no longer commit to full content, they lose the discounts GDSs had given them, but they also now are free to control the «merchandise» they put out and to levy surcharges on GDS bookings.
Airlines have explained that their surcharges for GDS bookings basically cover the premium it costs airlines to distribute via GDSs. For example, the new structure means IAG airlines now pay GDSs more per booking. «We are clear that the transition involves an increase in costs,» IAG CEO Willie Walsh said. «This is in the short to medium term not a cost-reduction issue. In fact, it will add to our costs.»
For the most part, many airlines prefer customers book on the airlines’ direct channels, such as their own websites. Here, airlines say, they have better capability to sell ancillaries to customers, can exert greater control over bookers’ experiences, can glean better data on their customers and can facilitate a more direct relationship with customers.
The International Air Transport Association has developed the New Distribution Capability standard to help airlines close the perceived gap between their direct and indirect channels. In other words, NDC-based connections—which could be adopted by travel agencies, content aggregation companies or the GDSs themselves—can give airlines that kind of control even via indirect distribution channels.
Got it? Now here’s what’s happened lately.
Air France-KLM Joins Lufthansa & IAG’s Club
Air France-KLM’s surcharge on GDS bookings, announced this month, will apply when Air France, KLM or the group’s Hop carrier participates as a marketing carrier on an itinerary. In January, the group will launch its NDC-based application programming interface, and on April 1, the day the surcharge takes effect, it also will release an online direct booking portal. Both are channels via which travel agencies can make bookings without facing the GDS surcharge.
Air France-KLM noted the distribution surcharge will cover the cost of distributing and making a sale via the GDS versus the cost of a direct sale. Its commercial and distribution costs rose from 690 million euros for the first three quarters of 2016 to 701 million euros for the same period this year. CFO Frederic Gagey said: «There is an immediate effect, which is that we pay more to the GDS. This is compensated by the GDS surcharge.» Air France-KLM also anticipates that switching some business to other channels will offset the higher fee it will pay the GDSs for each GDS booking. «All in all … it is neutral in year one and positive in year two.» Similarly, Walsh said IAG’s distribution strategy is «an investment in the first year and return from the second year onwards.»
According to Air France-KLM’s third-quarter investor presentation, switching to NDC means «taking back control of [the] offer for all channels, allowing creation of personalized offers, dynamically built product bundles [and] rich offers and content.»
After All That, Though, BA & Iberia Are Waiving the GDS Surcharge for Some TMCs
British Airways and Iberia enacted their surcharge on Nov. 1. Yet some large corporate TMCs are empowered to continue to book on GDSs without paying a fee.
Around the time BA enacted the fee, it arranged to waive its surcharge for select travel agencies when their clients book through GDSs that agree to the arrangement. Amadeus was the first of the three major GDS operators to buy in to this «private channel» model. Sabre followed this month, and at press time, Travelport also was poised to support agencies under the model. American Express Global Business Travel, BCD Travel, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, HRG and many of the biggest U.K. agencies are among the TMCs participating. Essentially, these TMCs gain access to the airlines’ surcharge-free content while agencies that aren’t in the private-channel club do not.
The fact that this private channel is available only to some agencies led one travel buyer to say, «The surcharge is only going to increase the skepticism of buyers that its NDC strategy is all about cost of distribution rather than the claimed benefits of enhanced content, personalization and working in a very different way with corporate customers.»
Still, there are other ways for agencies to avoid the surcharge. BA and Iberia have developed cloud-based tools, including a corporate booking portal for corporate clients and a tool for TMCs. Through those portals, IAG is offering the ability to book, change and cancel BA and Iberia tickets, including negotiated fares. BA and Iberia’s portals also support corporate policies and provide corporates access to ancillary products. Further, the airlines are providing «a standard XML feed for agents to integrate to their mid- and back-office systems.» Lufthansa similarly offers an agent portal and, as mentioned, Air France-KLM’s is in the works.
Yet another way to avoid the surcharge is to book IAG-operated flights through codeshare partners, including American Airlines. This is true of Lufthansa and Air France-KLM, as well, where codeshare bookings are not subject to the surcharge.
Ultimately, the GDSs themselves have embraced NDC. Each of the major GDSs has put time lines in place for full NDC compatibility. All say they will be NDC-certified at the highest level by the end of next year, which means the technical capability will exist for airlines to control the content they distribute via GDSs. What economic models will emerge among airlines, GDSs and TMCs, then, remain to be seen. According to IAG’s Walsh, «We’d like to have a relationship with the GDS, but we think the traditional model is no longer fit for purpose, and we need a model that works to the future and not one that is structured around the past.»
—Reporting by Jay Boehmer & Amon Cohen