Creating Order from Chaos: Fixing How You Buy Airline Tickets

I don’t really need to even say it, but I will.  Buying a ticket from an online travel agent sucks.  It’s hard enough to compare apples to apples when there are so many different options out there, but online travel sellers have made it far worse by doing virtually nothing to ease the burden on consumers.  Some may argue that this has been great for airlines.  After all, confusion can lead to people just paying more.  But the airlines don’t actually feel that way.  Instead, the big three in the US have been working with ATPCO (the fare distribution company that the airlines own) to create a standard for grouping fare types into categories.  This new standard makes sense, but it’s going to take some getting used to.  It involves using a star system the way hotels do to rank their properties.

Don’t think of this star system as being a rating system like TripAdvisor or a movie rating site.  This is meant to be used the way hotels have used it for years, as a way to note which hotels have which amenities.  ATPCO’s proposal is to rank an offer from 1 to 6 stars, and I should note, this particular setup is just for the US market for now.  Other markets might require tweaks to the categories.

Here’s the initial proposal.

In short, a one star option is Basic Economy.  If seat pitch is 32 inches or less, then it’s a one star option if one of these three are true:

  • No carry-on bag allowed
  • No advance seat assignment allowed without charge
  • No changes allowed

If none of those three are true, then it’s a two star option, regular coach.  

A three star option is like Economy Plus, an extra legroom coach seat.  If the seat has more than 33 inches, that’ll count.  So even JetBlue’s regular seating would get three stars.

A true premium economy option would get four stars.  That would include domestic First Class seating and older sub-par business class offerings.

Today’s standard Business Class with a flat bed would get five stars.

Lastly, a six star offer would be something with suites onboard, a true international First Class product.  (Though it’s possible Delta One with the doors might count.  This one seems a bit fuzzy so far.)

This may sound like a gimmick, and the star rating system itself may be.  But this isn’t about stars.  It’s about finding a better way to sell travel.

Online travel agents have for years thrown their hands in the air, complaining that the airline offerings are so different that they can’t effectively compare the way airlines do on their own websites.  With this categorization (whether using stars or any other label), online travel agents will finally be out of excuses.

This does require getting the airlines onboard to ensure their offerings can be put into these categories automatically (which they can be already, manually).  In fact, the call I sat on yesterday seemed mostly meant to educate airlines about the proposal and to try to get them onboard.  This is a work in progress, but it’s one that would effectively create a standard that could be used by all third-party sellers.

This vision is that you could go to Bob’sAirlineTickets.com (or any other site) and see something like this:

But even that’s just the start.  There are also underlying attributes that you could use to filter out the things that matter most to you.  For example, if a flight has power or not won’t make it move between star rating categories.  But those underlying details would also be coded so that filtering would be easy if you need to have power.  They could also be used to compare options to each other.

It would get even more granular than that in the data.  Let’s say you want wifi, but what kind of wifi do you need?

The whole point here is that ATPCO is trying to put everything into boxes.  If there’s enough organization, then it’s easy to create this standard… if the airlines all go along with it.

Right now, ATPCO is in the early stages, what it calls the “Driver Concept” to start getting airlines on the same page.  A proposed draft solution should be ready early next year.  The solution is expected to be completed by the end of 2019, and then in 2020, it’s time to implement.

Will the airlines all go along with this?  American, Delta, and United seem to be excited by the general idea.  Presumably others will follow, assuming the standard can be defined in a way that it serves each airline well.

This may be a first step, but it’s an important one.  If this goes through, then comparing air travel options should become much easier.

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