Data caching problems undo Southwest/Travelocity ticket sales deal

Southwest Airlines Co. is pulling the plug on a deal under which it sold tickets through online travel agency Inc., leaving the maverick airline's own Web site as the only Internet location that can be used to book flights on its planes.

Dallas-based Southwest said Travelocity was often issuing tickets to would-be passengers based on cached information it received from the airline, instead of on real-time requests for ticket availability data. As a result, travelers were taking Travelocity-issued confirmations to airports and finding that the seats assigned to them weren't really available, according to Southwest spokeswoman Beth Harbin.

The reliance on cached data stems from Southwest's decision to go against the grain of the travel industry by teaming up with just one of the big computerized reservations systems -- Travelocity's parent company Sabre Inc. Even with Sabre, Southwest only makes its availability information available through an electronic request queue that sometimes can take up to an hour to respond to queries from travel agents.

Al Comeaux, a spokesman at Travelocity in Fort Worth, Texas, said Sabre's reservation system has to send a teletype message to a Southwest office in order to process an order for a ticket. The order then needs to be manually processed by a Southwest employee, Comeaux said, adding that the delay caused by the procedure is to blame for the ticket discrepancies.

Southwest was left with two alternatives if it wished to avoid the problem and continue using Travelocity to sell tickets, Harbin said: It could unconditionally guarantee a seat for any passenger with a Travelocity booking or "invest millions" of dollars to upgrade its link to the Sabre system. "Neither was an attractive choice from our standpoint," she said.

Instead, Southwest will operate in familiar territory by relying on itself for all online bookings. The airline already has the busiest Web site in the industry from a ticketing standpoint, despite the fact that it's well down the list of the largest U.S. air carriers (see story).

But Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., called Southwest's decision to drop its deal with Travelocity "shortsighted." The airline could reach a far wider audience of travelers by augmenting its own Web site with sales through Travelocity and other online travel agencies, Harteveldt said.

"To not take advantage of the largest online travel site shows me [that] Southwest really has an 'our way or the highway' attitude," Harteveldt said. "This move will only benefit Southwest's competitors."

The decision to stop selling Southwest's tickets via the Travelocity site was a mutual one between the two companies, Comeaux said. Listing Southwest flights "is no benefit to us if our customers aren't actually able to use the tickets," he added.

But the move marks the second blow to Travelocity's business in less than a week. Last Wednesday, Northwest Airlines Inc. and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines announced that they would no longer would pay booking commissions to online travel sites — a move that prompted Travelocity to slap a $10 fee on all Northwest and KLM tickets it sells in the U.S. and Canada (see story).

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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