Ai Editorial: Dealing with airline IT Infrastructure for Distribution

Airlines’ IT infrastructure varies a lot and can affect what and how they sell, according to Paul Whiteway, commercial director - APAC, Skyscanner. Ai lists 5 key aspects of airline indirect distribution involving a meta-search site.

How competent are indirect channels when it comes to supporting differentiation that airlines are seeking? As much as the likes of GDS, OTAs and meta-search engines need to answer this question, airlines, too, are often probed about their intention for the way they intend to support indirect distribution.

Carriers have attained a high level of sophistication when it comes to serving ancillary offerings, branded packages etc. that feature on their respective sites. 

“However the distribution of this data to indirect channels is limited,” an industry executive told me. So this essentially means that unless users shop on the airline website they won’t see the full range of branded offers and content. By sharing more data with channel partners, airlines can ensure their brand benefits are communicated and this will drive sales and revenues. Of course, the discussion around who owns the customer is a valid one, and the commercial association is driven by this key aspect, too.

Ai spoke to Paul Whiteway, commercial director - APAC, Skyscanner, about how and why airlines work with meta-search sites and how the traffic generation site is improving. Excerpts from the interview with Ai’s Ritesh Gupta:

  • Being in control: Whiteway thinks airlines have a lot of control over what they want to sell. “Their IT infrastructure does however vary a lot and can affect what and how they sell. As we have relationships with over 400 airlines, we see a lot difference in the way airlines approach their selling. Mobile is probably the area where airlines are in less control – often due to legacy systems.” He adds, “Some airlines have an amazing mobile experience and some have less user-friendly ones. Overall the online industry moves at fast pace, and airlines need to adapt to this in terms of what they sell and how they sell across multiple channels and devices. As users are constantly evolving, the move to mobile for both searching and booking is one of the biggest shifts we have seen.”
  • Sharing of data/ content: Skyscanner was founded in 2003. With over a decade of experience, the company is equipped with sophisticated tools for working with airlines. Whiteway asserts that there is definitely a spectrum of how easy or hard some integrations are to onboard and manage on an ongoing basis. “Overall nothing is insurmountable but if an airline has an API that can provide direct connection that definitely works best for users as it gives them access to the best data.”

“We have also seen examples where when an airline shares promotion fares and actively manages their routes and pricing by using the powerful data tools we provide they can benefit significantly as users are always on the lookout for great deals,” shared Whiteway.

  • Incremental reach: Any channel that has the capability to drive increment business that a supplier simply cannot target is always an attractive proposition. For a traffic generation specialist, with over 40 million unique monthly visitors to its websites across over 30 languages, Skyscanner’s Whiteway says: “If you are a regional airline based in Asia your fares can be shown to our European users who may not be familiar with your brand”.  Airlines “definitely see tremendous value from direct agreements with us”, he adds. “And this benefit is not just in terms of the number of bookings they receive through us but others such as owning the customer relationship, the opportunity to up-sell and lowering their distribution costs,” he adds.
  • Top-notch user experience: A key focus today is to personalise the search results. And the team at Skyscanner, too, is working on it. Referring to Amazon’s recommendation engine, Whiteway says, “…it results in me buying way too many products at times. We are seeing the same trend in travel with personalization enhancing the user experience. We see our users want this based on data.” About what is being done, Whiteway mentioned that the objective is to understand and aid the decision-making - does a user have a preference for cheaper flights with a longer layover? Do you want to fly a low cost carrier or a national carrier? Do you prefer to leave at night or in the afternoon? Do you want an airline with a wide seat pitch? If done properly, it also means commercial partners are served much more targeted users.
  • Product differentiation: When it comes to 3rd party intermediaries, historically the focus has been on using price as a differentiator, and it will certainly continue to be important as price is a major decision criteria for users, says Whiteway. “Having said that, at Skyscanner we recognize that price is only one factor that influences purchasing decisions. It is important to show additional information such as whether baggage is included, in-flight entertainment, seat upgrade options etc.” He says this is a key focus for the site’s product roadmap and he promises users will see innovation and differentiating features around sorting, searching and personalization as well as deeply integrating ancillary services.

In terms of general trip planning tools and non-air products such as tours, Whiteway views this as an area that has a lot of potential as it is still very nascent. There are many start-ups in the trip planning space which is a fair indication of its potential but nobody has really ‘cracked it’ yet, as Whiteway put it.

Distribution will be on the agenda of the  global Mega Event (in San Diego 04-05 November 2015).

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