Big Three Airlines Add Corporate Travel Self-Service

By | April 18, 2016

[UPDATE, June 28, 2017: United Airlines next month will make available through an online portal a new set of features for corporate clients and travel agencies. A key addition is detailed data on ancillary spending. United managing director of sales resources Karen Catlin said such reports have been in beta tests with a few big customers but otherwise “don’t exist today anywhere.” In this second phase of the “Jetstream” portal, corporate clients also can start using soft-dollar points for their choice of various traveler amenities and apply certain waivers. Meanwhile, an “estimator” tool will help United travel agency partners forecast their activity on the carrier.]

[UPDATE, March 15, 2017: United announced that a new self-service portal is available to corporate and agency customers. The airline said it empowers users to solve problems, access info and request special services without phone calls to support desks. Called Jetstream, the portal offers customizable travel activity and spending reports (including “future-predictive performance”), weather waivers and product and policy updates. United plans to further expand the reporting dashboard, add ancillary spending data and enable custom notifications.]

American, Delta and United are rolling out online tools to give corporate accounts and travel agencies more and faster control over disruption recovery, itinerary adjustments, upgrades and other service requests. These are the next steps in automating waivers and favors.

In addition to reaccommodation during irregular operations, airlines offer some customers waivers on inventory and ticketing rules — advance purchasing, name changing and so forth. They may be a component of the soft-dollar funds negotiated and accrued as part of preferred-carrier contracts. The Big Three U.S. airlines are working to give accounts more power to choose and use those value-added items, which often are elite loyalty program status nominations, club passes and free tickets.

Enjoying a sustained period of profitability, the airlines each have committed to investing in customer service. The new online self-service capabilities show how they’re trying to make the experience better for lucrative corporate travelers.


Image: Thinkstock

American last June claimed it was the first to offer 24/7 online management of “waiver banks” through its Flex Funds program. The airline today planned to announce new services on its SalesLink travel agency platform. Agents now can rebook customers impacted by bad weather or other schedule changes without risking debit memos. They can more easily revalidate or reissue tickets as needed. “Compliance guidelines” are listed. An “un-check” function lets agents service records already in checked-in status. That’s helpful during flight disruptions or for last-minute changes requested by the traveler.

Delta is activating some of the same services. Last quarter, it added an online waiver management tool for TMCs via its Delta Professional portal. Through it, agents can apply waivers and manage what Delta calls “travel exceptions.” Some of that relates to redeeming “beyond contract value” points. Director of sales technology Sarah Reid said blanket waiver functionality is coming in the next phase. Blanket waivers often apply during severe weather.

United’s forthcoming set of self-services for corporate and agency accounts is “probably the single highest priority for my team this year,” said managing director of sales resources Karen Catlin. The vision is a do-it-yourself portal with customizable reporting and tools for PNR support and managing waivers.

Another component will let accounts manage the amenities United wraps into preferred deals. Today, Catlin explained, those lock in when contracts are signed. Cashing them in is a manual process. The plan is to not only allow accounts (or their TMCs) to redeem those amenities online but also swap in more relevant ones as needed. For example, the travel manager may want to reallocate funding earmarked for elite statuses because a group of transcon travelers would benefit from upgrades.

Reporting would encompass contract performance, ancillary spending and forecasting (i.e., looking at advance bookings). It also will show various aspects of United’s operational performance.

“Today I might have a meeting with my CFO and I want to show them some cost savings and information on ancillary spend but tomorrow I am meeting with my human resources leadership and they may be more interested in how often our travelers were upgraded or delayed,” Catlin explained. “These will be customized reports, on demand, based on the need of the day.”

Hastening Perks

In its forthcoming announcement, American indicated it would be “opening up new seat inventory” so corporate travelers can grab preferred seats “earlier than ever before.” Officials were not immediately available to provide details.

Preferred seats generally are aisles, windows or exit rows. Delta last quarter introduced a preferred seats application so corporate travelers can reserve them more quickly after booking tickets. “In the past you had to go through the TMC” to reserve those seats, Reid said. “Now it’s empowered in any channel where you can get at Delta seats.” That includes and the carrier’s mobile app.

Delta already provides Zone 1 boarding for travelers from corporate accounts. It also affords them priority service recovery during irregular operations and protection from involuntary denied boarding “at all costs,” Reid said.

Onboard recognition of an account’s travelers is another piece — if the travelers want that. “It’s acknowledgement and appreciation, some additional services onboard and service recovery if coming off a delayed flight,” said Kristen Shovlin, Delta vice president of sales operations and development.

Reid said Delta “in a few weeks” will add corporates into algorithms determining upgrades. The same is coming later in the year for the standby processes.

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