It’s a time-honored tradition for American to spar with its former internal reservation system, Sabre. The Sabre global distribution system (GDS) was spun off years ago, and there has been friction between the two for eons. Now, as Skift reported, American is at it again. This time it’s suing for how Sabre displays flight options, saying Delta, of all airlines, is being given a leg up.
You can read the lawsuit here. There are multiple parts to this, but let’s start with the overarching theme. Sabre has rolled out something for travel agents that it calls the New Airline Storefront. If you’d like to see Sabre’s fluffy pitch video on the product, here it is:
As Sabre describes it, this is a way for buying airline travel to be like going to a supermarket. You see a variety of similar products all on the same shelf and you can pick and choose the one you want. That sounds great in theory, but there’s a problem. As someone who works at a different airline said, “do you think Sabre knows that companies fight by paying more for shelf space at supermarkets?” That is not a workable model here.
For many years, GDSes were prohibited by law from biasing displays, but that is no longer the case. What is still the case, however, is that bigger airlines have a no-bias clause in their distribution agreements with Sabre. American says in the lawsuit that “Sabre is obligated to display American’s fare, schedule, and inventory data fairly, neutrally, and accurately” per the agreement between the airlines that originally dates back to 1998. American is saying that Sabre is now biasing displays, and, well, that’s an understandable position.
Let’s use an example here, because that is going to be the most helpful way to see this. I pulled up published fares for Phoenix – Atlanta on July 21 as a one way showing nonstops only. Here are the first two results in the Sabre New Airline Storefront:
These results are different than how a traditional travel agent search would go, because they actually include fare data. Historically, the search would just show available flights by duration and departure time (defaulting to 1pm unless otherwise specified). But with fares in the mix, it gets harder to show without any bias at all.
Though it doesn’t say what the initial result sort is here, you can click on “cheapest” in the interface which returns the exact same result so I assume that’s the default. That seems to be an issue. This now sorts by lowest fare regardless of what “shelf” it’s on, from earliest departure time on up. It seems quite obvious that American’s fare is better since it’s regular economy and not basic, but that’s not how the sort has been designed.
Over on the right is a bigger issue. You see that there is a Delta Comfort+ fare here, but there is not an American Main Cabin Extra fare. That’s because Delta files Comfort+ as a completely different fare that you purchase. American has you buy the coach fare and then pay extra to upgrade to get extra legroom. The end result is the same, and that’s where laziness, or at the very least, slowness, comes into play.
American sells those extra legroom seats in Sabre, and on this particular flight, the price ranges from $30.45 for a middle seat up to $66.99. If Sabre wants to do this right, it could show it like this:
Or there is a simpler option. American has something it calls Main Plus which it offers as an upsell on AA.com or through third parties like Google Flights that use an NDC connection. Here’s the upsell AA has on its website:
Either of these would give an accurate representation of similar options, but it can be hard to do. The former option requires parsing the seat map data, the so-called “Air Extras” which get sold as an add-on, and then adding the range to the fare. The latter option requires Sabre finishing the NDC connection with American that it has been working on for a long time. In theory I understand that should be done in a few months, so maybe that will solve the problem. Or will it?
Of course, it’s not that simple. Sabre is put in the impossible position of having to create the definitions for those different shelves, and someone will be unhappy and claim bias. ATPCO tried to get an industry standard, but that effort seems to have been written off. Just consider the trouble with the above example alone.
Delta’s Comfort+ gives you extra legroom, dedicated overhead space, and complimentary beer and wine and maybe liquor depending upon what page you’re looking at on Delta’s website. American’s Main Plus gives you the same plus an extra checked bag. Is that still the same? It’s a judgment call Sabre would have to make, and if it decides in a way that favors one airline, the other will cry foul.
While that is a very sticky situation, there are other things about the implementation that are completely unforgivable. For example, I searched business class from DFW to Honolulu and it returned this weirdness:
Why would one flight return premium economy and the other first class? I have no idea. But these look to be on the same “shelf” when they are decidedly not. And if I search for First Class, I get this:
That third entry is particularly strange since it now compares American’s flexible fare to the non-flexible options for the two above. It’s also completely wrong. That price is actually an end-on-end combination of a flexible fare basis to LA and then a non-flexible one from there. Combining fares like that results in something that can’t be defined as First Flexible. This kind of sloppiness is just inexcusable. American said in the lawsuit that it has been trying to get Sabre to “pause” the storefront rollout until issues are fixed. The response? “To date, Sabre has refused to do so.”
On top of how the display works, there is the broader issue of incentives to create a bias among users. Delta reportedly re-did its agreement with Sabre, and apparently in the new agreement, higher payments are given to travel agencies that book products on higher “shelves.” I initially thought… so what? That’s just the commercial contract. But American says that this creates an incentive for travel agents to book Delta over American. As the airline bluntly states in the suit, “Sabre’s planned actions will violate its contract with American.”
Neither American nor Sabre would publicly comment since this is pending litigation, but the only way to really fix this is to have a wholesale reworking of distribution agreements along with better quality control via improved technology to avoid the sloppiness we see today. Good luck getting any of that done. It’s a herculean task when you’re trying to change the way tickets are displayed and sold, especially when legacy contracts seem to prohibit the plan. All the sloppiness needs to be fixed, and that shouldn’t be hard. But that’s the only easy issue of the bunch.