COMMENT: RIP AA's Direct Connect (2009-2013)

I was at home last week suffering from strep throat when American Airlines and Travelport announced their agreement, and since "You'll see! We'll sign a Direct Connect deal with a GDS!" was AA's February reaction to my January argument that the company had effectively poisoned its Direct Connect program, my mind got to racing about how I should respond.

But I already had decided that if AA did sign a GDS to Direct Connect, it would be the very deal that buries the zombie for good.

AA for more than three years has said that GDSs were as welcome as anyone to use Direct Connect, provided the right terms were agreed to. At the time, the statements seemed like an afterthought or a red herring. They seemed like a way to counter the critics. Who were the critics? GDSs, and the TMCs and corporate buyers who supported them. Why were they critics if the Direct Connect was built to include them? Well, it wasn't. They were critics because the Direct Connect, as marketed, really was about connecting the airline to travel management companies via a Farelogix-provided application-programming interface, like Amex does with Air Canada.

But now, AA is connecting to Farelogix, which is connecting to Travelport, which is connecting to TMCs. That's as direct as a "direct flight!"

Since GDSs aggressively opposed the AA program, what has transpired might appear to be a breaking of ranks by Travelport. Some in the media portrayed it as such. But if it is such a break, it's only that Travelport has agreed to use XML rather than Edifact to connect with a significant U.S. carrier. And even that is just the result of the parties coming to terms, under the pressure of a lawsuit, on such an arrangement. I don't get the sense that GDSs in general are opposed to using XML, since they have used it with smaller airlines and also hotels for years.

To reiterate, what AA has agreed to with Travelport is no different than what various airlines for years have done with the GDSs. Rather than pumping their inventory and fares to the GDSs with the Edifact language, they're using their application programming interface built on XML. Whoop-de-doo.

Now, the switch to XML and the agreement with Travelport do afford some nice enhancements. For no added direct cost__excluding possible indirect productivity costs that Travel and Transport CEO Bill Tech pointed out__TMCs will access ancillary products that AA did not already make available through GDSs via the fare bundles it announced in December.

Plus, the court battle is over, and AA and Travelport now have a "long-term" deal.

But this is not the industry-exploding change that a full program that actually connects an airline to a TMC without a GDS would have been.

It's not the program that brings an end to the innovation-stifling graft that lashes TMCs to GDSs. Why else would Farelogix CEO Jim Davidson go into detail about that with a blog post just days after the AA-Travelport announcement? Hey Jim, AA and Travelport are using Farelogix! Why are you unhappy? OK, don't answer that.

I agree AA was a victor, starting with the Sabre case. And now by connecting to a GDS, AA takes a big leap toward achieving connectivity goals outlined when it announced the Direct Connect program in 2009.

But the potential for real change from that program is now dead. As before, the airline has removed more reasons for a TMC to use it.

What AA has is an API. It doesn't need a name.