Tuesday, 26 April 2005

The Amazing Race 7, Episode 8

Jodhpur (India) - Istanbul (Turkey)

Yet again in this episode of The Amazing Race the key to finishing first was finding "interline" connections between flights on different airlines (in this case, on Indian Airlines and Turkish Airlines from Delhi to Istanbul via Dubai) that arrived earlier than the sole direct flight, or any connections on a single airline.

Yet again, none of the airlines the racers consulted, at the airport or at their city ticket offices, told the racers about interline connections, with one specifically denying that any other connections would arrive earlier than their direct flight. This should be no surprise: Why would they volunteer to potential customers that they might get a better deal by giving them only part of the money, and giving part to another airline, when they could have it all by convincing them to make their entire journey on their own airline (or, failing that, on their marketing partners rather than competitors)?

Even most travel agents won't find interline connections unless you ask them to look for them specifically. Again, this should be no surprise: the Computerized Reservation Systems (CRS's) used by travel agents are programmed to list "online" connections between flights labelled with the code of the same airline (even if they are actually codeshare flights operated by different airlines, as I discussed at the start of this season) ahead of "interline" connections -- even much faster ones -- between different airlines. No CRS I've ever worked on gives agents an option to override that prioritization.

If finding interline connections is hard (and, as a result of codesharing and CRS ranking algorithms, getting harder), over the last year major airlines have begun taking drastic measures to restrict the ability of travellers to get through interline tickets, even if they somehow figure out (most likely, as happened for Joyce and Uchenna this week in the race, through a patient and skilled travel agent) that they can do better by combining flights from several, not necessarily "allied" airlines, rather than limiting themselves to just one airline or even just one alliance.

From the start of the airlines, the assumption has been that even the largest airline couldn't cover the world alone. (Memo to CBS-TV and the producers of "The Amazing Race", who spliced a photo of an American Airlines plane into a scene at the airport in New Delhi this week: American Airlines does not fly to New Delhi, anywhere in India, or anywhere on the entire mainland of Asia.) In past decades, the norm has been for airlines to have as many interline agreements as possible -- modelled on the interline agreements that previously existed between railroads -- to ensure that they were able to issue, and honor, through tickets to and from as many places around the world as possible.

All major airlines used to have interline ticketing agreements with each other, and a typical national airline, even a fairly small one, would have agreements with a couple of hundred other airlines. Once an airline joined IATA and its financial clearinghouse, standard bilateral ticketing agreements could be executed with the simplest of formalities.

One of the keys to the system was the worldwide standardization of IATA ticket stock and formats used both by airlines and travel agents. But with IATA committed to eliminate paper tickets by the end of 2007 , airlines that want to retain their interline agreements will have to adopt compatible electronic ticketing systems.

When airlines talk about the elimination of paper tickets of the as part of the same package of "improvements" as the addition of RFID tracking chips to travel documents, travellers are right to smell a rat.

The impact on travellers to date is relatively minor, but the likelihood is that within a few years the current globally integrated ticketing system will be replaces with a significantly balkanized one, in which "alliances" or marketing consortia issue incompatible forms of electronic tickets. CRS's are working on standardization of interline e-ticketing , but no airline yet has more than about 20 interline e-ticketing agreements in place, compared with typically more than 200 paper ticket interline agreements.

On the cutting edge of this trend, Continental Airlines took the first step a year ago toward eliminating paper tickets by terminating more than 50 of its interline agreements with airlines that don't plan to convert to compatible e-ticket systems. (press release, correction updating news release).

"Why would anyone care if we could sell them a ticket on Air Tanzania?", said a Continental Airlines spokesperson when I enquired about the impact of the change. "They can just get a ticket when they get to Tanzania." Obviously, anyone planning to go to a domestic destination in Tanzania served only by the national airline, and not wanting to risk having flights already be sold out if they wait to buy their domestic connecting ticket until they arrive in the country, cares a great deal about interlining even with "minor" airlines. (Continental Airlines doesn't fly to anywhere in Africa, of course, and despite the large size of the country only a few airports in Tanzania have direct international flights.)

Travellers from interior points in Tanzania -- or, to return to the race, places like Jodhpur in India that aren't international gateways, but where domestic and regional carrier Indian Airlines can still, as of now, sell through tickets to almost anywhere on any airline in the world -- care even more about interline agreements. Eliminating those agreements with airlines that can't afford to upgrade (and upgrade all their local ticket agents) to computerized interlinable e-ticket systems is, in effect, redlining much of the global South out of the international air travel network, and vastly complicating (and increasing the cost, since through tickets are typically cheaper than separate tickets) of North-South travel in either direction. Oh, and have I mentioned that the same things apply to interline baggage transfer agreements, increasing the likelihood that you won't be able to check your bags through to your final destination, but will have to claim them, schlep them through the airport, and re-check them midway through your trip?

Even passengers who don't plan to fly on multiple airlines benefit from interline ticketing agreements: without such an agreement in place, one airline can't "endorse" its tickets to another airline in the event of a flight cancellation, delay, missed connection, or overbooking. But as more and more alliances coordinate their schedules to reduce duplication between alliance members airlines' route systems, it becomes more and more likely that the only alternate flight, if yours is cancelled, will be on a competing alliance. The result is to substantially reduce the likelihood that stranded passengers will be accommodated on the next available flight, even if it is operated by a competing airline (as is, obviously, in the passengers' interest) and increase the likelihood that they will be forced to wait for their original airline's (or one of its partners' flights, as is obviously in the airlines' interest (since it costs an airline less to transport passengers on its own flight than to pay another airline to transport them).

Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 26 April 2005, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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