THE BEAT SHEET: Airline-GDS Terminations; Inflight Phone Calls; DOT Rulemaking Update

The Beat Sheet is an occasional collection of notes, quotes, musings, tips, reader comments and other tidbits from The Beat's writers.

-- The U.S. Department of Transportation will not release the Enhancing Passenger Protections III rulemaking this year, as previously expected. For now, mark your calendars for Jan. 24, 2014, which is the new scheduled publication date for the long-delayed rulemaking, according to a DOT status report this month. The rulemaking continues to be held up by a review from the Office of Management and Budget. Among other provisions, the proposals could include a requirement for airlines to display ancillary fees through the global distribution systems in which they participate. That is, if they ever get proposed.

-- In a WestJet press release this week announcing iTravel2000's letter of intent to implement the carrier's Farelogix-powered application programming interface, Rose Cosentino, the online travel agency's vice president of sales, referenced WestJet's "Jan. 26, 2014, termination from participation in the Sabre global distribution system." Turns out that termination is not a fait accompli, as a WestJet spokesperson said the carrier and Sabre are negotiating a new deal. "However, in the event we do not come to terms, we were obligated under the current contract to give notice of termination, which we did a few months ago," the spokesperson explained. The carrier is "focused right now on getting the Sabre deal done." WestJet earlier this year reached a new "long-term" deal with Travelport that imposed some "display requirements" on the GDS provider. Similar requirements, at least when demanded by Air Canada, weren't very palatable to Sabre.

-- Turning to another GDS deal termination, Travelport and British Airways at press time had yet to announce a new agreement to replace the one that expired last week. Prior to the expiration, BA was threatening to pull content and levy booking fees. So, where do we stand a week after scheduled expiration? "British Airways has not at this stage implemented de-selection of any content made available to Travelport or applied any surcharge," an airline official said this week. The threat still stands, but so far it's just a threat. Following coverage in The Beat, fresh memos went out from both companies to clients. According to one from Travelport's Scott Hyden, BA's threats to remove "certain of its lowest, short-haul, economy fare classes from Travelport" and impose a surcharge for "short-haul, economy-class fares" would apply only to United Kingdom points of sale. So, rest assured, U.S. subscribers.

-- A Washington Postarticle in September noted that President Barack Obama "often compares shopping for health coverage on the marketplaces to buying a plane ticket on Travelocity or Expedia." That was before the disastrous launch of the insurance enrollment platform. After the rollout? Well, a former administration official referenced another case study in travel distribution.

Another Washington Postitem in mid-October quoted former United States chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra, who cast the rollout "in the context that glitches happen." Indeed, he compared the rollout to the United-Continental passenger services system integration. Ouch.

Let's be fair: United's cutover last year to a single airline system wasn't that bad. I'm betting the White House would have been elated if the website performed as well as United's passenger services system in the wake of the cutover.

-- Probably not the most popular thing to tell a room full of young, eager tech developers with sights set on "disrupting" the travel marketplace: At last month's PhoCusWright conference General Catalyst Partners entrepreneur in residence Hugh Crean had this to say: "We all know the story of David and Goliath, and it's a great story and it's a memorable one and there's those examples in the market now, but the reality is 99 out of a 100 times Goliath kicks David's ass."

-- Much has been said about how certain segments of the corporate travel industry lack innovation. Indeed, the "innovation is dead" theme was a thread at this year's The Beat Live conference in Miami. But something just as important is missing among other participants in the travel management market, said eCommission Solutions president and CEO Paul Hoffmann during a Business Travel News buyer conference in New York this month. That is adoption: "With the applications flowing, and me being in the technology business, I often find myself rather frustrated because there's a lot of great technology out there and people are asking for it__they're clamoring for it, they want it and a lot of time they get it__but they don't adopt."

-- Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson made a trenchant point during the recent International Air Transport Association World Passenger Symposium in Dublin. As the industry bickers about IATA's New Distribution Capability, agencies and other GDS-powered points of sale are yielding a content advantage to airline websites. Each passing day makes the gap "wider and wider," he said. "More airlines are offering more content on their website. Most airlines I talk to, not all, want to get that into the channel that represents 60 percent of their business." In other words, the GDS channel.

For now, getting new content into that channels__a preferred seat here, a prepaid bag there__"takes longer than it should because there's not a standard in place," Davidson said. "Every one of those [connections] costs more to airlines and technology providers because there's not a standard. We can vastly improve how fast we scale and how consistent we are, and that's what standards will do."

This coming from someone who "tried to go around the GDS for seven years," he said, presumably referring to direct connect strategies. "It didn't work, so now we're going to play nice, but let's at least use a standard so that we can play nice."

Davidson almost seemed surprised by his own statements. "Here I am defending the GDSs__what am I doing here?"

Davidson even called the GDS the "most efficient path to get to this market." But at the current rate and without a standard, Davidson predicted that the 10 largest airlines would not be able to sell preferred seats through all GDSs until 2025.

Without standards, Davidson said that "the airline websites will get richer and richer and richer, and sooner or later us as consumers are going to go to the website, even the corporate travelers."

Jim Davidson, new champion of the GDSs.

-- "Our customer research and direct feedback tell us that our frequent flyers believe voice calls in the cabin would be a disruption to the travel experience," Delta CEO Richard Anderson wrote in a memo to employees this week. There's been a lot of noise recently about inflight phone usage: The U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently voted to end its ban on inflight calls, a House bill then was introduced to disallow phone calls during flight and DOT is weighing its own ban.

I have no desire to make phone calls while flying, and agree it would be annoying if fellow passengers chose to do so. But many airlines, Delta included, weren't so opposed to inflight phone calls when they were installing the Airfone on their seatbacks. Remember those handsets? They were barely used, and when they were, it cost something like $5 a minute to call earth. (Though I think calls were free if you used them to order something from the SkyMall catalogue. Seriously.)

It would seem that phone calls now are considered a nuisance now that everyone has cell phones and can make them almost anywhere at any time. Those passengers who couldn't afford $5 a minute (or the ridiculous SkyRest travel pillow) probably can afford a monthly cell phone plan nowadays.

The pervasive anti-phone sentiment, it would seem, is less a matter of principle, and more a matter of volume and access.

A decade ago, 'fone calls were fine, but phone calls now? No way! Does it really matter if you're talking into a cell phone, into the Airfone or, for that matter, to the person next to you? Maybe we just ban all talking inflight__the Amtrak quiet car for the sky. Barring that, hopefully you can sleep through anything. A nice pillow would help. SkyMall also offers noise-canceling headphones.