Thursday, April 16, 2009

The American Dream: AA to Try to Turn Distribution Costs Into Distribution Revenue

In AMR Corp.'s first quarter earnings call yesterday, CEO Gerard Arpey spoke of his "long-term vision" to make travel agencies and global distribution systems (GDSs) pay for the privilege of distributing American Airlines' flights rather than the reverse.

And, even short of that goal, the move could be, well, priceless.

Arpey was quoted as saying: "Tom [CFO Thomas Horton] can jump in here, but I think the same approach that we’ve taken here in the U.S. certainly lends itself to the international distribution of our tickets where we’re still paying much higher levels of commission and booking fees, etc., and I think a lot that hinges on the use of technology and the competitive environment because a lot of those commissions or overrides or booking fees are paid in order to stimulate traffic and if we can, as an industry, do a better job keeping the supply of seats in line with the demand, I think that will help us on those fronts."

Warming to the topic, Arpey spoke of his dream: "So I think there are significant opportunities around the world to make the kind of progress that we’ve made here in the U.S. and not to be too dramatic but I can see a day, and maybe I’m dreaming here, where those folks who are the intermediary between us and our customer, have to pay for access to our product rather than us paying them to distribute our product. So that would be my long-term vision."

Any airline, GDS or travel agency executive in the U.S. recalls the distribution dramatics of 2005 and 2006, when the airlines threatened surcharges and radically cut the distribution fees they paid to GDSs and the incentives that Sabre, Galileo, Worldspan and Amadeus passed on to travel agencies.

Well, Arpey is signalling two things:

1) American Airlines, and others no doubt, are set and already are trying to export to the international arena the slash- and-burn distribution tactics that they successfully employed in the U.S. several years ago.

2) In the U.S., the next round of GDS-airlines booking-fee negotiations in a couple of years may make the prior face-off look like amateur night.

Airlines, of course, have every right to trim their distribution costs to reasonable levels. Before GDS deregulation, the GDSs used their clout and virtual monopoly power to tack on excessive fees to airlines that had little bearing to actual costs.

But now, as Arpey's comments show, the airlines are poised to try to force intermediaries to distribute flights to airline customers for free -- or, taking it to dream-like proportions -- to make online travel agencies, traditional agencies and GDSs pay for access to flights, which, of course, the airlines control.

Between Sabre, with its still-sizable distribution grip, terminating its relationship with Farelogix, and airlines poised to wield their hold over flight inventory to pummel intermediaries, it almost -- but not quite -- makes one wax nostalgiac about the days when these sectors were regulated.

The disruption that the travel industry faced in 2005 and 2006 would be considered a tremor compared with the earthquake that would occur if the airlines succeed in forcing through payless distribution in the next round of contract talks.

These days, the brouhaha may not sell a lot of newspapers, but it would drive a lot of traffic to travel news websites.

Meanwhile, another interesting point about American's first quarter results, is that although AMR's revenue declined 15 percent to $4.8 billion, those checked bag fees and other ancillary services indeed are paying off.

American's revenue from change fees, on-board meals and checked bag fees jumped 6.9 percent to $558 million in the quarter.

In the American (Airlines) Dream, those feels increasingly will be in the picture.


Lorraine said...

Airlines barely making it on airline commissions anyway - and now no service fees - will force the hand to adopt the metasearch model (e.g., Amadeus/Kayak) - if that dark day ever comes.

Hudson Crossing said...

Well, all I can say is good luck, AA. In an era of falling demand, I don't see how AA can afford to potentially risk a loss of distribution. There is no G2 alternative threat this time around and corporate buyers have signaled they do not want to be left holding the bag as they were the last time around. Plus, UA (before Al Lenza arrived!) has already signed a new agreement with Sabre which extends their agreement to 2013 - so much for the industry moving in lockstep....

Dennis Schaal said...

Lorraine: I think you meant online travel agencies barely making it on airline commissions. Do you have any insight into how that Kayak/Amadeus partnership is working out?

Dennis Schaal said...

Hudson Crossing: Yup a GDS boycott of AA, however unlikely a scenario, sure would hurt American. And great point about United's new agreement with Sabre through 2013. I'd like to get my hands on that pact:) It could probably be renegotiated if the distribution model shifts.

Lorraine said...

yes, meant online travel agencies, they're strangled by their own business model for air. Kudos to Amadeus for at least thinking about partnering with Kayak... not sure how it's working out yet -- too soon to tell.