Sponsored flights? A bad idea whose time has come

by Janice Hough on September 30, 2010

While most reservations systems for booking airline tickets have issues, they are a necessary evil for presenting the maximum choice in flights for clients. Now a disturbing new trend, “sponsored flights,” may mean increased revenue for the reservations systems, but more work and even decreased choices for travelers.

Travelers can go directly to an airline website, but then they miss out on other competing carriers’ offerings. While GDSs (Global Distribution Systems) are not perfect, most travel agents, including online agents rely on them. (And that includes companies like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz.)

These days, while an agent or traveler can specify a certain airline, or even a certain airline group (Star Alliance, Oneworld, etc.) the GDS supposedly has a relatively unbiased display. From the point of view of someone who has spent many hours working with GDS displays, things may be changing and not changing in the favor of consumers.

In the beginning, the change is a relatively trivial annoyance.

Here’s a very slightly edited example of a display, when asking simply for a flight from JFK to SFO at 11 a.m. on October 10. (the only information removed is additional fare classes, like H, Q, V etc, which aren’t relevant to the issue at hand.)

SPONSORED FLIGHTS*
DL2965 J9 Y9 B9 JFKSFO 800A 1126A 752 90
DL 263 J6 Y9 B9 JFKSFO 315P 652P 752 70
NEUTRAL DISPLAY SU 10OCT NYCSFO
UA 642 F8 J6 Y4 B4 JFKSFO1100A 220P 757 90
US6633 C6 D3 Z3 Y4 JFKSFO1100A 220P 757* 0
AA 15 A3 J7 Y7 B7 JFKSFO1045A 155P 762 90
AS1266 F7 Y7 B7 JFKSFO1045A 155P 762*90
QF3070 J9 D9 Y9 B9 JFKSFO1045A 155P 762* 0
VX 23 J4 C0 Y4 V4 JFKSFO1040A 205P 320 0

That may look like a lot of agent jargon/gobbledy-gook, but basically the display is flight numbers, class of service available, departure/arrival times with equipment being flown (757, 767, etc) and in some cases, percent of on-time arrivals in the past month.

Incidentally, note all the code-shares as well, as US6633 (US Air flight 6633) is the same flight as United 642, and AS1266 and QF 3070 (Alaska 1266 and Qantas 3070) are the same flight as American 15.

Disturbingly, on top of the display, as the “best” flights, are two DL (Delta) “sponsored flights.” Even though they aren’t at the requested time but at 800a and 315p. Airlines even want to buy their way onto the first page of regular travel agent screens as well as online travel agency screens.

In this case, it’s relatively easy to ignore the sponsored flights, but what happens when more carriers get into the act? Airlines pay additional money to the GDS system to get these first listing, so presumably the systems are all in favor of more paying participants.

While a decent travel agent or experienced traveler can still see the real “best” flights, or at least the ones closest to the requested time, this kind of listing spam will likely get increasingly worse.

What happens, for example, when “sponsored flights” fill up the whole first screen? Then what happens when car and hotel companies join the first-screen party?

It may all mean more profits for the reservations systems, but it is just another obstacle for travelers.

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