Air Transport World

The international soap opera. (computer reservation systems)

Sometimes, it seems that CRS is more important than modernizing the fleet," outgoing Lufthansa Chairman Heinz Ruhnau told a Washington audience in June. That shows how much the airline world, even where protection continues, has changed, from one focused on operations to one where information is king.

Ruhnau spoke from painful experience. Mounting costs and delays at Amadeus, of which Lufthansa is a founding member, and the pullout by SAS caused him considerable internal criticism-which contributed to his early departure.

Trouble is, for CRS followers rather than leaders, almost any decision be criticized. The business is a moving target. Worldspan CEO Cal Rader declares: "More things are happening now that will influence the [CRS] industry than at any other time in its history": Governmental intervention in the U.S. and Europe, availability of technology to a wider base, increasing customer demands, more rapid introduction of products.

Nonetheless, the industry is aging. Suggests a longtime expert: "There are three big stories in airline marketing-CRS, yield management and frequent-flier plans. The last two have a lot more to play out" than the CRS business.

Rader tends to the same view. "There is a shift to make it less a marketing tool for a single airline and more an information resource. Now that CRS is neutralizing, it is more an airline distribution channel."

Management sometimes gets ahead of itself when playing the "neutrality" tune. Major U.S. vendors have developed availability and display programs that give agents more rapid connections to the information of participating airlines willing to pay for it. All of them say that the more sophisticated connections bring participants "almost" to the level of host. The vendors, particularly Worldspan, Covia-Galileo-Gemini and Amadeus-Sabre-are touting the "almost instantaneous" reaction times, "almost automatic" procedures and "more real-time" information for agents checking nonhost airline availability. Even foreign and smaller U.S. airlines concede that the worst U.S. practices are history.

Still, problems remain. "Almost" is not "equal." KLM is a shareholder in both Covia and Galileo but still obtains most of its business from unaffiliated CRS agents. it has proposed "dehosting" CRSS, as has Worldspan. At a minimum, KLM would separate CRS owner-airlines' internal database and software applications from that of the CRS. Ideally, KLM would have them separated physically.

Despite faults in the U.S., it is CRS nirvana compared with elsewhere. Asia has no CRS rules. Airlines lag behind even the Europeans in emerging from the CRS-as-marketing-tool phase. The EC has laid down a CRS code of conduct and is trying to keep a close eye on the newly emerging European systems. But plenty of complaints remain.

The U.S. continues to watch its vendors, too. Under congressional pressure, the Department of Transportation issued new proposals aimed at pushing the industry toward more neutrality sooner. How many changes will be mandated-in agency contract terms, in architectural structure, in the fee scheme, in encouraging single-terminal access to multiple systems-remains to be seen. The Office of Management and Budget hated the idea from the start and stalled issuance of the proposals. OMB will control the end product, too.

Also, if U.S. CRS neutrality truly existed, airline-owners would not be so shy about making their finances separate and public, something DOT-unfortunately-did not propose. …

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