Direct Distribution Going Wrong?
June 22, 2004
AirKiosk system management software includes somewhat intelligent programs to monitor visits and activity levels on our customers’ Web Booking pages.
This software tells us a high percentage of Internet traffic on some customer sites can come from a small number of Internet addresses doing nothing but displaying flights and fares for a rapid succession of destinations and dates.
These are not people, these are “people emulators” and “screen scrapers,” programs which mimic human searches to gain access to airline information. These “visitors” have no intention of ever making a booking.
In one case we recorded 14,000 page invocations (flight searches) in one hour from one of these programs. Needless to say, we block access to our servers from Internet addresses producing this type of activity.
Internet pages are designed for human use. Although Internet professionals recognize robotic activity as “server attacks” or “port jamming,” we have actually received lengthy complaints* from blocked parties!
The common argument from scanners is they are doing our customers a “favor” by gathering fare data and displaying it on alternate websites for, to quote one, “exceptional exposure, at no cost to themselves.”
* Complaints are forwarded to the relevant airline.
The High Cost of “Favors”
“Exceptional exposure” typically means inclusion in websites which compare the fare data of multiple airlines on competitive routes. One site argued the “benefit” is that travelers can go to one place to compare the fares of “all” Low Cost Carriers before making a decision, even though this fare information is not realtime, and therefore not reliable.
So, what does this cost an airline?
- Robotic web scanners rob your real customers of the web resources (server computing cycles and network throughput) provided to serve them. In some situations (for example numerous “screen scrapers” during busy hours), these programs could bring the operation of your website to a temporary standstill or complete halt.
- Your data may be used in ways you are not even aware of. Robotic scanners do not identify themselves; they can be run by any company trying to gather your fares information for sale to your competitors.
- Even with several scans a day, “compare fare” sites cannot have accurate fare or availability information.
- You lose brand control. You do not control the appearance of your brand or positioning relative to other airlines on alternate sites.
- You risk customer loyalty. Your customers may become loyal to the alternate site, not to visiting you.
- Your marketing message is weakened. Your flights become one of many promotions by a third party, and availability of your best fares may be misrepresented. Your promotional fares, designed to appear only on certain dates or only to certain visitors, will be missed altogether.
- You lose access to your market data. Customer access logs are in the hands of the alternate site owner. This is similar to the GDS’ MIDT appropriation of vendor data.
And, like booking engines run off of GDS databases (Travelocity, Expedia, Orbitz, Opodo), “compare fare” sites can damage the customer relationship by frustrating buyers who find, late in their attempts to actually book, that a low fare is really not available. GDS-based fares display relies on a single fares data repository. So, whether a “compare fare” site is running the ITA method of low fare search or some other homegrown algorithm, realtime fare changes will be ignored.
A Scary Prospect
Third parties — whether Orbitz or “Joe’s Fares” — taking travel vendor data and deciding how it will be presented to customers should be a familiarand scary proposition.
We are on the verge of the creation of Internet GDS companies, mimicking the old concept of a central data repository.
We do not need to look very far back to remember the time when the legacy GDS companies were the only “honest” brokers of the Travel Industry. Of course, it took years of effort and legislation to keep these companies “honest,” and still they found ways to run an exclusive club, preventing “undesirable” market entrants from competing with their “preferred” travel vendors, all while continuously increasing their fees.
It took guts for companies such as Southwest Airlines and EasyJet to declare that the GDSs are undesirable. They, and the near-miraculous development of Internet commerce, made GDS bypass a plausible solution. Today the use of the Internet to bypass GDS channels offers total operational cost savings of 18% to 25% to airlines. This savings could certainly help a number of carriers steer clear of Chapter 11.
The interests of both sides, the vendor and the customer, are best served when they know each other. It took Sutra the better part of a decade to build the AirKiosk system, a distribution solution designed to restore travel vendors’ direct relationships with both consumers and travel professionals.
If airlines allow alternate Internet sites to build a position as “Fare Consolidators,” they will lose a tremendous opportunity to both develop their direct vendor-customer relationship and to break away from intermediaries, which were the force behind the uncontrolled rise of distribution costs in the Travel Industry.
Source: Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines went as far as suing the operators of Orbitz to prevent their flights from appearing on that “compare fare” Internet booking site.
Controlled Data Availability
There are ways for travel vendors to connect to desirable websites in a way which the vendor controls.
- If the site is engaged in interactive sell, the preferred method would be XML, meaning that a special user name and password would be allocated to such a site, and their activities will be properly tracked.
- If fares need to be displayed just as a reference to support the primary content of the site, the fares may be periodically downloaded via a flat file, and must be displayed with a message clarifying the age and nature of the displayed information.
These methods of connection are available with the AirKiosk system.
When it comes to direct customer relationships, of course, there is no substitute for an airline’s own vigorous promotion of its website and direct agent channel.
Protect Your Site and Data from Illegal Scanning
Programmatic access to AirKiosk Web Booking pages is prohibited, and we take every reasonable measure we can to stop it.
It is the responsibility of our customers to clearly display a message on their websites that this is not allowed. Good examples of Website Use Terms and Conditions covering information theft and website abuse can be found on the sites of the pioneers of the GDS-breakaway movement, EasyJet and Southwest Airlines.
The above are excerpts only. To see full Terms and Conditions, please visit the source websites.