American Airlines and other carriers may have another new foe to deal with in the coming weeks as a group emerges to take the distribution war to the next level.
Well, not exactly a new foe.
Open Allies for Airfare Transparency launches at the end of January with a mission to force airlines to make fare and ancillary fees available on every distribution channel in which they operate.
The organisation has apparently been in stealth mode for a period of time, but recent developments involving American Airlines has probably pushed forward the need for it to go public.
A big clue about which organisation or groups have spearheaded the formation of the OAAT comes in the form of the organization's Washington-based director, Andrew Weinstein, ex-VP and chief spokesman for AOL, deputy press secretary for the speaker at the House of Representatives and media chief for the Bob Dole presidential campaign in the mid-1990s.
Weinstein also is a spokesman for the Interactive Travel Services Association, whose members include the major GDSs and US-based online travel agencies.
Weinstein says his two roles will remain separate -- although there is clearly complete harmony in the goals of OAAT and ITSA.
Weinstein says there is "significant interest" in the OAAT from across the industry, including travel agencies, corporate travel departments, TMCs, GDSs, and online travel companies.
There is scant detail about its structure and membership at present - Weinstein says more will be revealed at its official launch in the coming weeks.
Sabre has confirmed it will be part of the group. The GDS, which this week announced it would be terminating its distribution contract with AA, sent a message to agents this morning urging them to join the OAAT.
A Travelport official says the company is in discussions with OAAT "to learn more about the organisation and its goals".
"As you’ve seen in recent days, people from every part of the industry are expressing their frustration with AA’s heavy-handed Direct Connect strategy," says a Sabre official. "Obviously Sabre shares that view, so, of course we are going to be part of any effort that promotes a transparent marketplace based on easy comparison shopping."
Weinstein says the focus of the group is not just concentrated on the US, but is hoping to attract international partners.
"There has been an industry-wide backlash against the airlines' refusal to share ancillary fee information and against American, in particular, for trying to force travel agencies, corporate travel departments, TMCs and online travel companies to use its 'Direct-Connect' system, which would make it difficult, if not impossible, to compare American's fares against other airlines."
In a briefing document, OAAT says it will do the following:
Advocate on behalf of recent proposals from the US Department of Transportation and Congress to require airlines to disclose their ancillary fee information to TMCs, corporate travel departments, travel agencies, and online travel companies through the distribution systems in which they participate.Oppose efforts by airlines to create proprietary Direct Connect systems that circumvent existing distribution channels; prevent comparison shopping; limit competition and choice; and require TMCs, corporate travel departments, and travel agencies to invest in expensive and potentially incompatible new systems.Strongly oppose efforts by airlines to "strong-arm" TMCs, corporate travel departments, travel agencies, and online travel companies to use “direct connect” or any other booking systems or technologies that do not meet their clients’ needs.
Weinstein says the group is not "anti-airline, anti-fee or anti-technology" and it recognises that the airline business model has changed in recent years.
But the OAAT believes airlines "have an obligation" to liaise with their "best customers".
"We will not be told what systems we have to use, nor blocked from comparing prices between airlines, nor prevented from designing the best flight options for our customers."
The group clearly has ambitious plans to become a major mouthpiece in the growing battle between airlines and intermediaries and GDSs.
"Open Allies will serve as a unified voice for thousands of TMCs, corporate travel departments, travel agencies, online travel companies, GDSs, and other participants in the travel industry in working to advance ourclients’ interests, reduce costs, and protect the ability to comparison shop between airlines on an apples-to-apples basis."