Airline partnerships don’t extend online

By | December 12th, 1996

It’s ironic that the latest airline partnerships, which try to squeeze more profits out of passengers by code-sharing, are by and large overlooking the most important electronic opportunity: the Internet.

Even as the proposed American Airlines-British Airways alliance fights its way through the courts, sidestepping the savvy demolition efforts of BA archrival Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways, the AMR Corp. home page reflects precious little of the would-be corporate affair.

Long-standing relationships don’t register on other airline Web sites either. Northwest-KLM? Nope. Delta and Swissair? Hardly. British Airways and USAir? Nada.

On the Internet, it’s every airline for itself. Spare a hyperlink to a partner, maybe, but post a joint home page? Forget it.

Wouldn’t it make sense to offer information about routes and destinations under a unified home page? Isn’t it more cost-effective to promote such partnerships together on the Web, a step that would deflate ballooning advertising and page construction costs? Why not jointly sponsor a site that highlights leisure fares or tour packages sold by the respective carriers.

Why not, indeed.

One reason might be the temporal nature of such corporate cooperation. Like so much else in this industry, the agreements are marriages of convenience that are as easily dissolved as they are established. Wasn’t AMR Corp. president Robert Crandall talking about hooking up with Air France if the BA union crumbled? And wasn’t USAir threatening to sue BA because of its unfaithfulness?

Another explanation is that because these agreements aren’t outright mergers, there remains a certain amount of competitive tension between the airlines. Cooperation has its limits, and one of the lines is drawn in cyberspace.

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Perhaps it’s nothing so complicated. It could just be that airlines are clueless about the potential of this new medium. Consider the facts: when the Internet went commercial in 1992, lots of companies made plans to go online. But the airline industry made excuses.

“We don’t want to interfere with our agency distribution system” was the oft-repeated chorus among airline executives. Then, a few months later, the very same executives collectively agreed to a commission cap, and in doing so essentially told their once-invaluable agents to take a hike.

By the time the carriers decided to exterminate the unwanted parasites from the travel distribution equation, every undergraduate with a ‘486 had a home page. It was history repeating itself. The airlines, which were among the last industries to implement significant automation technologies, had again missed an important opportunity, and by many months.

Now, they’re making the same mistake by failing to evolve and take advantage of the Internet’s unprecedented flexibility and global scope. Other businesses, notably publishing, media, and telecommunications, posted joint sites and engaged in joint marketing efforts long before airlines got curious about cyberspace.

We may, in fact, never see the same degree of airline cooperation on the Net that we see offline. The schedules may be merged, the frequent flyer programs might be interchangeable, the codes may be shared, but the Internet remains a trivial distraction that promises minimum profits and maximum headaches in the short term.

Unfortunately, the short term is all that airlines want to see.

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