Why Lufthansa Will Change Our Industry for the Better

Lufthansa Group announced a bold move to charge 16 euros for each ticket issued through a GDS.  Like any other unilateral cost increase,  it’s unwelcome. Travel managers are fuming; many of you seem really angry.

It reminds me of the withering challenges Continental took on back in the day when they forced corporate accounts to accept Prism’s contract monitoring as a condition for getting corporate discounts.

Today, contract monitoring is widely used because it benefits those buyers who meet their market share commitments.

So, deep breaths everyone.  Let’s consider the longer-term implications of Lufthansa’s unbundling the distribution value of the GDS channel.

First, this is another form of ancillary revenue for the airlines.  It just happens to be aimed at the travel manager, rather than the travelers.  Like travelers facing choices about fare families and other forms of bundled benefits, you travel managers have to decide if the GDS-bundled price is worth the value.

No doubt, there is real value in booking via the GDS/TMC channel.  Easy comparison shopping, immediate itinerary support from your TMC partner, and full data integration come right to mind.  The good news is that you still  have this well-oiled, high-value channel available to you.

Whether the GDS channel is worth 16 euros is your call. What used to be “free” is now out in the sunshine, where free markets can more easily decide its true value.  The debate needs to be about the price, and not Lufthansa’s right to charge it.

Now let’s imagine what may happen if other airlines adopt this same unbundling strategy, enough so that most travelers – leisure and business – have the same choice every time they want to buy a ticket on most any airline.

Will the leisure traveler place the same value on easy comparison shopping, TMC support, and data integration?  Of course not.  So all those leisure transactions will move to the lower cost, lower value channel of airline-direct booking, which is where most of them are anyway.

Guess what?  A big chunk of business travelers book just like leisure travelers.  They are price sensitive.  They book in advance.  They don’t change their travel plans.  And they don’t worry about needing a dedicated agent if something goes wrong.

Call these the commodity travelers of the business world.  They will naturally gravitate to the cheaper booking channel, removing a not-insignificant volume of transactions from the GDS engines.

All you travel managers in low-cost cultures will feel pressure to help them do this.  You’ll shift some of that pressure to the airlines, your TMC partners and other parties to bring you back the data you need from all those airline-direct bookings.

Those pipes will grow.  Maybe not great pipes, but good enough for the essential job of providing duty of care data and some purchase/policy information.  You’ll get by, and you’ll save some money by swimming in this cheaper distribution channel.

But with the GDSs losing notable volumes of their bread-and-butter transactions – the basic trips, no itinerary changes, no refunds or exchanges – their profit margins will take a hit.

The GDSs are left to handle the complex ticketing jobs on smaller volumes, and so will raise their fees to the airlines.  The airlines will respond by adjusting their GDS channel surcharge, until the market stabilizes in favor of the airlines.

Why will the airlines win?  Because GDSs set their prices to airlines in multi-year contracts, while the airlines can change their channel surcharge prices overnight.

But here’s the magic of free markets.  When all the airlines are charging GDS surcharges and reducing their distribution costs, they have to decide what to do with their new profits.

Well, we’re seeing this movie play out with traditional ancillary revenues.  Airlines are using those profits to fund new terminals, buy new planes, invest in the traveler experience…all good things for an industry criticized for treating passengers as an afterthought.

On an even more optimistic note, assume that the airline industry gets its fill of new terminals, new planes and happy travelers.  What then?  Will they be able to keep their fatter profit margins, or will the typical airline revenue management models takeover, and seek more volume by reducing fares?

I think that’s what will happen.  In the long run, these GDS surcharge revenues will get competed away in the form of lower airfares, until the airline profit margins are back to where they are now.

And don’t think this is all bad news for the GDSs.  This surcharge shock will give them every incentive to prove  – and improve – the value of their channel.  Look for significant upgrades in the way they commercialize their shopping assets, and  sell and service travel bookings. Amadeus’s new Exchange Relief product is a good example of this type of value-creating innovation.

On an even more optimistic note, what if this surcharge shock transformed the daisy chain of money being passed around this industry?  Wouldn’t it be great if everyone knew the costs of each step in the channel?  Even better, if they had choices about which steps to pay for?

Silver linings, folks…this will eventually be good for our industry.

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2 Responses to Why Lufthansa Will Change Our Industry for the Better

  1. Yukari Tortorich says:

    It will be interesting to see if the ATP goes up or down with no airfare comparison.

    And your comment about business travelers behaving just like leisure travelers…. I hope you were being facetious. Yes, I agree most are price sensitive. But they don’t always book in advance and they change their travel plans a lot. And they want an easy way to make changes with someone who they know (our dedicated travel team).

    I’m very interested to know what TMCs are planning to combat this issue for their corporate customers.

  2. mjpremo says:

    Great commentary, Scott! We at ARC have been working to get airlines as close to agnostic as possible about agency channel vs. direct channel. And of course, no matter what else we do, GDS relationships / models are a big hurdle. This might be an “unwelcome” (as you put it) way to get there, but anything that helps get airlines past this is worth a try, IMHO. A better world may indeed await.

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