Regulators are to review the Code of Conduct overseeing global distribution systems in Europe - a process which could eventually see fundamental changes being made to reflect the new marketplace.
The review is expected to start over the course of the European summer, with the European Commission kickstarting the process with a questionnaire being sent to "stakeholders" in the industry, including Travelport, Amadeus and Sabre.
Dubbed by some as a "healthcheck" of the Code (still called The Code of Conduct for Use of Computerised Reservation Systems), officials are required to establish whether any changes are needed to the framework by March 2012.
Although examination of the Code is a standard process (other similar reviews saw amendments made to the original 1989 Act in 1993 and 1999), many believe so widespread is the shifting landscape of travel distribution that the review could see some significant changes next year.
Central to the review is whether all its constituent parts are still relevant to the marketplace and mechanics involved in distributing air fares.
Such elements include:
Obligation on the system vendor to allow any air carrier the opportunity to participate, on an equal and non-discriminatory basis, in its distribution facilities.Obligation on carriers participating in a computerized reservation system to communicate, with equal care and timeliness, information on schedules, fares and availability relating to their own air services to any other system requesting it.Obligation on the system vendor to refrain from discrimination in loading and/or processing data provided by participating carriers and to separate its distribution facilities in a clear and verifiable manner from the private inventory of any carrier.Obligation to provide clear and non-discriminatory displays. The displays must contain accurate, non-misleading information.
But with significant developments in the marketplace over recent years there is a sense that there will be widespread modifications made to the Code. There are a number of important issues to consider:
The European Travel Technology Services Association (ETTSA) has made no secret of its desire to see officials at the Commission look at the Code to reflect the changing marketplace, not least because of the entry of Google onto the scene following the completion of its acquisition of ITA Software.
The reason why Google comes up in this debate is not because it has any desire to be a GDS or online travel agency per se, but because many expect it to have a considerable role in the wider distribution of air fares in the future.
But this, interestingly, is where the politics kicks in.
Although there is a desire for the Code for to be changed so that the framework covers companies such as Google, it turns out that some companies are actually rather keen not to be seen as the ones pushing for it. Why is this?
Google has a dilemma of sorts ahead of it as it looks to roll out its widely anticipated flight search tools on a global basis. It can ramp up the resources and capability of ITA Software or partner with, yes, a GDS to get it hands on airfare shopping and pricing.
So, it can actually turn out that a collective push for Google to to be included in the Code might not come from the likes of ETTSA (which represents the GDSs at European lobbying level) at all.
The other big development, of course, is the changes to the distribution model around merchandising, so-called direct-connect and mobile.
European officials are apparently aware of and keen to see these changes in the marketplace also reflected in the Code, although some suggest this is actually also double-edged sword for the GDSs.
On the one hand the changes to the distribution of air fares and associated products should be regulated, but equally including these new processes in the Code then shows acceptance in the wider industry that, at least in terms of Direct-Connect, the model is evolving - a change that some of the GDSs are fighting against in the courts in the US.
Where there appears to be more wider agreement is that the Code should remain in place in some form or other (some have previously suggested that the marketplace is actually far too complicated to regulate, so the current Code should be scrapped).
Many are worried that a deregulated market in Europe could simply lead to the current situation in the US where, as one source suggested, "the only people winning at the moment are the lawyers".
NB: All three main GDSs are preferring to remain quiet about the review for the time being, with all three confirming they would rather wait until the questionnaire is released before making any official declarations as to their position or whether any changes are necessary.