New York — It’s easy to make fun of the traditional “green” screens that travel agents use, but it’s really hard to replace them. Executives with large travel management companies deposed for the US Airways v. Sabre lawsuit, now in trial here, pointed to tens of millions of reasons.
“It was a money pit,” said BCD Travel EVP Rose Stratford of the company’s Renaissance desktop, abandoned in 2009 after swallowing more than $20 million. “We don’t make that much money to invest that much in one single product. We’d have to maintain the product, which we knew was going to be millions of dollars a year.”
Former American Express Global Business Travel and Carlson Wagonlit Travel exec Andrew Winterton said CWT shut down its Symphonie project for some pretty solid reasons: “It was negatively impacting the business in that our customers didn’t like it because it led to higher agent costs, because it was less productive than the GDS environments that we operated.” A Sabre attorney cited Winterton as saying Symphonie cost CWT $10 million to $15 million per year to develop and maintain.
At GBT, Winterton said, the similar TravelBahn Gateway project cost “on the order of magnitude of $100 million.” He said “we underestimated the costs, time and resources.”
TMCs and tech providers have looked into developing new desktops in part so they can point them to various sources of rates and inventory. Clients often demand the capability to access non-GDS content, which every few years appears set to grow as airlines pressure distributors on costs. Even when things aren’t so heated, travel managers receive complaints that preferred systems are missing rates travelers see elsewhere.
Addressing this with technology requires multiple connections and the ability to “store, aggregate, develop and display any of the information you get from those different sources,” Winterton said in his deposition. But, he said, Amex “ended up creating a desktop that was single GDS and had limited content integration capabilities.”
Plaintiffs’ witness Steve Reynolds, a former TRX exec who now runs TripBam, in Nov. 17 testimony said Winterton’s description of the needs was “on point.” However, Reynolds argued that such a product could be developed for less money than Stratford and Winterton referenced in their depositions a few years ago. “TMCs aren’t very good at software development,” Reynolds said.
At TRX more than a dozen years ago, Reynolds led the creation of a graphical agent desktop called Selex. TRX charged Amex, BCD and Rosenbluth $350,000 each for it, he said. Reynolds claimed using the graphical user interface was just as quick as typing in a GDS text interface. When he left the company in 2003, Reynolds said, Selex was on about 100 agent desktops.
GDS companies have tried to introduce point-and-click graphical interfaces but agents, for the most part, prefer to keep both hands on the keyboard and whiz away with cryptic formats. A Sabre attorney here compared it with the stenotype machines court reporters use to type entire words by hitting multiple keys simultaneously.
They are no longer green and they don’t live on dedicated hardware like they did in the 1980s, but otherwise GDS screens look pretty much the same. Sabre has been trying to move beyond its “classic view” for two decades.
“We’re now on the third version of the graphical user interface,” said Sabre vice chairman Greg Webb, testifying for the defendants last week. “The issue is, professional travel agents are really fast. It’s not sexy-looking but fast is sexy to travel agents.” A graphical view now is an option on every Sabre desktop, said Webb, who plans to leave the company at year-end.
Also departing is Sabre CEO Tom Klein. He testified this week in part about his role at Sabre in the mid-to-late 1990s when he was responsible for Planet Sabre, the company’s first GUI for agents. Rolled out by 1999, he said, it was state-of-the-art. It won design awards. “The bad news was, agents didn’t use it much,” said Klein. “They didn’t find it efficient.”
Despite the challenges, Klein said, Sabre has tripled the investment in its agent interface (Sabre Red Workspace) since he took over as CEO three years ago.
Controlling the interface is a strategic imperative for Sabre, according to evidence in the case. The thinking is reflected in some of its policies for tech partners.
A February 2007 document indicated the company considers multi-source desktops to be a business risk. According to the document, such products could reduce Sabre’s ability to add value to suppliers and agencies, cut down on its influence and cause it to lose bookings.
A juror asked Reynolds why Concur — which had been demonstrated as a multi-source aggregator for travelers — could not be used by agents. Reynolds said Concur executive Mike Koetting at one point told Reynolds that Concur would like to build a multi-source agent desktop. However, Reynolds testified, “Sabre prohibits them.”
In his 2012 deposition, Koetting talked about how the Sabre authorized developer agreement prevents Concur and its users from searching elsewhere for content that exists in Sabre. When one of Concur’s many direct connections is used to book outside Sabre but the information is brought into Sabre to complete a travel record, Concur pays Sabre $3.75 (a fee that Concur passes to clients).
If Koetting commented during the deposition on the desire to develop an agent desktop, it was not shown in court. Citing the ongoing trial, Concur opted not to comment.
Airline direct connect developer Farelogix has had some success with an alternative to GDS desktops. The 150-employee company originated as a provider of consolidator rates, then pivoted to be a multi-source aggregator. Now it sticks to direct connect technology, which it provides to 17 airlines including American Airlines, Air Canada, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar and WestJet.
According to testimony by Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson, American Express in Canada beginning around 2007 and for about eight years used a graphical user interface provided in conjunction with Pass Consulting. It didn’t bypass Sabre, said Davidson, but rather supplemented GDS content with Air Canada’s direct connect and Via Rail info.
Davidson said he was surprised by American Express GBT exec Mike Qualantone’s comments about Farelogix. “I don’t believe his comments were valid,” said Davidson. “He worked with us in Amex Canada and helped us define some of that functionality. I find it shocking and don’t agree with it.”
BCD and CWT also were Farelogix users. Davidson said Farelogix was part of CWT’s Symphonie and that BCD also used Farelogix for hotel content. But when the Farelogix-Sabre authorized developer agreement ended in 2009, he said, the projects began to wind down. (Sabre grandfathered the Amex initiative in Canada.)
Nowadays, the Farelogix Sprk interface does not aggregate multiple sources, said Davidson. The demand for that went away, he said, after GDS companies secured full-content agreements with the big carriers.