There's no question that GDSs have had to change with the times. Travel agents today expect them to provide more Internet assistance, fares they can pull up seamlessly and a plan of action for the future. Still, there has long been a rumbling that alternative GDSs would make their move.
A recent GDS panel pitted technology companies such as Pegasus Solutions and ITA Software against traditional GDS Amadeus in what was to be a heated debate, but the discourse seemed to bring up as many questions as answers. More questions arose with Sabre getting purchased and going private, along with Worldspan being consolidated into Galileo.
For now, we'll attempt to answer at least one query: Are alternative GDSs for real, or is it time for them to get real and realize they'll never challenge the major players?
"The airline went with the new content for fee deal, the long-term deals and the lower-cost models," says Henry Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research.
"This will make it harder for the alternative systems to hold in the distribution landscape. Not to say it's impossible for an alternative GDS to stay in the game, but if the traditional GDSs continue to figure out that lower cost distribution models is not an option but a necessity, then alternative GDSs are mostly on the outside looking in."
So then, what exactly have the periodic meetings between the airlines and the alternative GDSs been about? Some have called them informational, others serious—but Derek Lewitton, VP Business Development at ITA, has gone on the record as wondering if companies like his are nothing more than "a battering ram for (GDS) negotiations."
A Piece of the GDS Pie
Harteveldt feels there are at least a few alternative GDSs that can gain minor slivers in the long-dominated GDS pie—such as Chicago-based G2 SwitchWorks.
"They might be the strongest alternative, because they're working with major tier airlines," he says. "Radixx also has collected a lot of airlines, but they are all second-tier level or below. G2 has broken through because they started with a more narrow focus and, coming out of Orbitz, they were able to create credibility.
"I don't want to slight the technology of the other players," he adds, "but they need to have a fresher approach towards how they market themselves. G2 looks at their system as not just for an airline, but a viable system for hotel and cars. Sometimes the others look like airline-only distribution, when they could be more."
Speaking of airlines, one problem that won't go away for alternative GDSs is when you have a flight requiring two carriers, maybe only one of whom is participating with an alternative model.
"Let's say American or United went into an alternative GDS," says Harteveldt, "but one of their alliance partners or international carriers on the itinerary wasn't in it. Now, the travel agent wants to sell the customer a ticket, and the alternative GDS may also need to interface with a traditional GDS to do the request. Do you think the customer and agent want to have to deal with more than one record, especially when two separate reservations and paying two fares may make them miss out on an attractive thru-fare?"
Terry Jones doesn't think so. As a former CIO of Sabre and founder of Travelocity who's now a partner in technology consultancy Essential Ideas, he believes it's getting near the end for alternative GDSs to become the players they once aspired to be.
"You hear the alternative GDS talking about it again and again," Jones says. "'In six months, we're going to make our move and then the airlines will wonder why they'd ever stay with the GDSs.' But, that's the problem, they never make their move."
Jones says there's one advantage alternative GDSs have been providing, even if it was never their intention. "They've pushed the (traditional) GDSs to make changes and improve their prices," he says. "If GDSs had never responded to the threats they posed then there's no question alternative GDSs would have been a factor."
Tailored for Users
Still, Michael O'Connell, Director of Corporate Business Development for Pegasus Solutions, thinks alternative GDSs can add a more specific tailored user experience than traditional GDSs, and says that the Internet is one of the best places to gain ground.
"We're trying to focus on the individual customer and use our 8-10,000 web sites for breadth of distribution," he says. "When you look at the number of companies that are moving to online booking opportunities, it's clear we still have spots to make money by being problem solvers.
"Bottom line," he says, "we even support the GDSs through the mechanisms of our sites, but see ourselves as true content aggregators for broader distribution for travel agents."