Sabre, United Work Toward Traveler-Authenticated Seat Sales

Among the goals of the International Air Transport Association's New Distribution Capability is informing airlines who is shopping through third-party distributors and allowing carriers to tailor offers based on personal attributes. United Airlines and Sabre, however, are not waiting for those standards to emerge to deliver traveler-authenticated shopping for the carrier's premium-economy product.

Since some elite United flyers are eligible for free or discounted access to Economy Plus seating, the carrier and Sabre are working to exchange frequent-flyer information to return appropriate price quotes, representatives from both companies said Thursday.

United vice president of merchandising and e-commerce Scott Wilson told attendees here at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Symposium that United is working "very actively" with Sabre to "make sure that when a Sabre subscriber wants to shop and get information from United, we are aware of who's knocking on the door at the very beginning, and we can send the right set of information back through Sabre to their subscribers to put that right product in front of them."

Such authenticated shopping apparently will take some time given United executive vice president of marketing, technology and strategy Jeff Foland's expectation for Economy Plus to return to GDS channels "in the second half of this year." United last year suspended GDS sales of Economy Plus amid the transition to a new passenger services system, but has vowed to return the product to GDS channels.

While United is keen to pursue authenticated shopping, other carriers are not there yet. US Airways made good on its agreement to sell its Choice Seats product with Sabre (this week Fareportal, an e-commerce company that operates online travel agency, began selling the product via Sabre), but does not use authenticated shopping, according to Sabre Travel Network vice president of merchandising Shelly Terry.

She told The Beat that connections to US Airways and, later, United are based on OpenTravel Alliance XML schemas that would enable traveler-authenticated offers if airlines choose.

Wilson said United is "pushing very much for an authenticated connection," claiming that "the customer value goes up immensely if we can put in more tailored response back to them through ourselves or through third parties."

Terry told attendees the capability__at least with regard to using frequent-flyer numbers__isn't new, even if airline interest is. "We can enable an airline to know who is shopping for travel right up front from the very beginning," she said. "We've been able to enable that for quite some time__actually for many, many years."

In its NDC vision, IATA indicated that personal identifiers could include marital status, frequent-flyer number, customer type, travel history, nationality, shopping history and other details airlines could collect to tailor deals, though the association has maintained that it would preserve "anonymous" shopping.

"In order for us to offer something, all we need is a unique identifier__something that identifies me as Scott Wilson, frequent-flyer number blank," said Wilson. "Any info we have about you as a frequent flyer with United stays with United, so the result we send back to Sabre, for example, is just a price and not additional information about Scott Wilson the frequent flyer. It is just a unique identifier that allows us to connect a query with the passenger."