Full content vs full capability – the wrinkle in airline distribution

Much has been written about “full content” being the way that GDSs control their relationships with the airlines.

global network

But is there a dark side to this – that full content contracts actually harm many different players because the GDSs don’t have the ability to provide full content capability, the ability to correctly and fully display the content that in essence they have exclusivity to?

While there is a lot of noise about the airlines not providing their content equally to the GDSs, this could be a smoke screen for a far worse sin: the legacy GDSs do not display the content fully and fairly.

Today, GDSs and airlines enter into agreeements via a common contract form. This is called the PCA (Participating Carrier Agreement).

The basic essence of the full content portion of the contract is that the airline agrees to provide the same content via a GDS as it does down any other channel, including its own – such as its website or call centre.

In return for this great deal, the GDS gives the airline a “deal” on its rates.

As the debate over the airlines and the GDSs rages far and wide, it has become clear that this agreement is perhaps one-sided.

Most airlines – and, indeed, regulators and the general public – have assumed until now the GDS is actually doing a good job of providing access to its content.

So the airline is carrying out its part of the agreement. However the question of whether the GDS is doing its side is emerging.

Allow me to be specific.

If the GDS has signed full content agreements with all airlines available, then the GDS is by law required to display all information fairly and equally (however, not in the USA, as there is no regulation requiring this).

The theory has been that the GDS is the arbiter of what is possible and what is not possible, therefore the GDS treats all airlines equally.

So if the algorithms built into the GDS have a flaw, all airlines are treated in the same way, equally badly.

Actually, this is not the case. The inadequacy of the technology discriminates against consumers and airlines.

Here is how:

In a neutral display, the airlines see their products shown in a results screen equally. Fine if you are a non-stop or a direct airline. But what about the connections?

Actually the GDS is discriminating against ANY airline which has more than a double connection (actually three flight segments).

For example, Emirates offers a wide number of connections including double connections in Australia on the way to, say, New Zealand.

Furthermore the GDS cuts off the total number of available choices at a certain number of lines and also will not display all fares.

This is a technical limitation of the mainframe systems on which GDSs are based. Thus, if your airline is below the threshold of the possible choices as determined by the GDS then you are SOL – sorry, out of luck.

Who is the loser in this? Actually, just about everyone – the airline which has been disadvantaged and the consumer.

The consumer is denied full choice; the airline is denied the ability to sell fairly with other airlines. For the smaller carriers this is bad. The bigger airlines don’t need to worry quite so much.

For those airlines which in international markets have complex itinerary options, the GDSs fail to display certain results (such as the example I raised above) in any form of search.

I would even challenge that in some cases that the GDSs will NEVER return certain viable results for some airlines and their products.

Sadly the airlines who are affected tend to be so fearful of the GDSs that they keep quiet for fear of retribution.

In the cases of the use of complex fares, GDSs can never return a result in search. Just try to go from Northern Europe secondary cities to Australasian secondary markets. The PCAs tend to be very one-sided in this respect. Up until now, technology did not exist that could prove otherwise.

For those of us who have been working in fares for a long time, we have just accepted the legacy restrictions with a shrug.

But now we can see that new fare tools such as those from ITA Software and Everbread have far better search mechanisms than the GDSs.

The tools result in better options – and more of them – for the consumer. The tools enable a good travel agent to be a better travel agent, for example.

And, of course, these are online tools to find options that previously just were not possible.

This is clearly a value that Google has seen and one of the reasons why it wants to get its hands on hot property ITA.

So where does this put the full content agreements that the GDSs sign with airlines, especially now – as shown above – the results are somewhat confusing?

These new search and shopping tools show that the consumer can have access to better possible results – consumers can now see which choices are possible far better than the legacy tools of the traditional GDSs can provide.

The search and shopping process is very important. But the fact that the GDSs strong armed the airlines and restrained the use of advanced search tools for so long is now clear.

The advances in search that Google (and others I hasten to add) have brought to the general consumer market have been denied to consumers of airline products.

To demonstrate, one only has to look at what percentage of search in airline tickets starts at a search Engine (eg. Google) vs starts at a metasearch or online travle agency.

This situation should not be allowed to continue unchecked, but the legacy GDSs and their allies are obfuscating the issue by focusing on the source of the content rather than the presentation/manipulation of the content – which, to me, is a far bigger issue.

Why? Because the setting of pricing is the result. We must remember that the airline ticket is one of the very few products available anywhere, where the creation and price setting of the product is determined by downstream intermediaries.

For this reason it is an unusual case and, yes, deserved of a full not partial analysis of the impact to the consumer and the competitive situation in the market.

NB: Disclosure – O’Neil-Dunne is CTO and deputy CEO of Lute Technologies, which is a partner of Farelogix.

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Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

About the Writer :: Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

Timothy O'Neil-Dunne is the managing partner for venture firm VaultPAD Ventures– an accelerator devoted exclusively to Aviation Travel and Tourism.

VaultPAD also is the parent company for consulting firm, T2Impact. Timothy has been with tnooz since the beginning, writing in particular aviation, technology, startups and innovation.

One of the first companies to emerge from the accelerator is Air Black Box. a cloud-based software company providing airline connectivity solutions and in production with airlines in Asia Pacific.

Timothy was a founding management team member of the Expedia team, where he headed the international and ground transportation portfolios. He also spent time with Worldspan as the international head of technology, where he managed technology services from infrastructure to product.

He is also a permanent advisor to the World Economic Forum and writes as Professor Sabena. He sits on a number of advisory and executive boards



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  1. Moon

    OMG it is you Timothy,
    I was studying about NDC, GDS, FCA and I found this article very useful. And it is written by you. Thank you for the great information.

  2. KraukoBlog – L’évolution des coûts de distribution : des fees GDS au CPC

    […] Mais plus que l’exhaustivité en terme de contenu, Google pourrait proposer un outil de recherche plus performant que les GDS grâce au rachat d’ITA Software (cf l’article de T. O’Neil-Dunne: Full content vs full capability) […]

  3. KraukoBlog – Shifting of Distribution Costs: from GDS fees to CPC « KraukoBlog

    […] And beyond sufficiency, since Google bought ITA Software, it could potentially bring search that perform better than GDS (see also T. O’Neil-Dunne’s article: Full content vs full capability) […]

  4. Kraukoblog | Shifting of Distribution Costs: from GDS fees to CPC

    […] And beyond sufficiency, since Google bought ITA Software, it could potentially bring search that perform better than GDS (see also T. O’Neil-Dunne’s article: Full content vs full capability) […]

  5. Brett Henry

    Tim – I love you man but this article is a case study in misinformation. From the description of full content agreements to the suggestion that GDS pricing systems are still on mainframes. You’re either completely disconnected from reality or misinformed.

    • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

      Ouch Brett – that hurt!

      But I will stick to my guns on this. The model is the same as when pricing functionality was exclusively on mainframes. IE it’s the same even if the technology is physically residing on different boxes. But I will do a small mea culpa and say that I was ambiguous and correct myself that the pricing can be located on a number of different systems. Its still however not fully functional and capable.

      For a wide number of reasons the functionality of the traditional GDS systems have not kept pace with Technology as other industries and markets have done. Further the commercial agreements in place do place handcuffs onto the respective parties and in my view the airlines – some more, some less – are hamstrung by these agreements.

      Bottom line – I will state categorically that in my view the airlines in full content agreements do not have full capability from the GDSs.



  6. Kraukoblog | L’évolution des coûts de distribution : des fees GDS au CPC

    […] Mais plus que l’exhaustivité en terme de contenu, Google pourrait proposer un outil de recherche plus performant que les GDS grâce au rachat d’ITA Software (cf l’article de T. O’Neil-Dunne: Full content vs full capability) […]

  7. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Art – Yes… you are right. The mold/model is broken. Thus the issue should be to let the market find its own level.

    I believe you are wrong in pointing the finger at IATA as the source of the evil. IATA does both good and bad. I am merely stating clearly that the market should be free and unencumbered. Which in my view its not. Because the current model works doesn’t mean it cannot be improved. This is what I believe we should all be striving for. Investing in technology has clearly paid off for the likes of Google and others. Is the industry investing where it should to provide better choice and service to its customers?

    The reality of the situation for sale of airline products – most notably in the USA is that there has been a concentration of power. Not quite as much as the GDS market (top 2 players having 90% approx of intermediary sales) but still a significant concentration. The DoT bears the responsibility for allowing the “mergers in all but name” alliances on international routes. The consequences of the reduction in the number of market players dictates one of two possible results. Either the intermediaries have to work harder to differentiate between the players or the neutral systems become less relevant. Both are possible.

    I buy online and offline. I don’t pay Target for browsing their store online or offline. I happen to try and buy local – my preference.

    Customers vote with their wallets. As long as they know what they are dealing with. I am not blaming the legacy GDSs for their own predicament – this was in many ways forced upon them. But the noise – I would agree to describe it as propaganda – made in support of the ubiquity of full content and mandating it by law is to me insane.

    Can we at least agree that this is the case?

    If you would care to contact me individually – I would be happy to provide you with examples.

    I am neither an apologist nor a propagandist for the airlines nor anyone else. Having worked on all sides of the debate, I am merely pointing out flaws in the argument that Full Content should be mandated and enforced by law when it doesn’t provide the full capability.

    Thanks all


    • Art Godfried

      Timothy, I guess IATA is a whole other subject. I lost a bit of respect for the organisation when the president called GDSs leeches, not that there aren’t issues there but upon further examination I found IATA to be more of a leech. Clearly IATA has done some good things but honestly, the bulk of it was done is 30-40 years ago. They are a political organisation, not very technical, but there needs to be an oganisation dealing with and improving industry standards. They are reluctantly forced into this role, and ultimately unsuccessful. Change in standards usually means work for airlines, GDS, TAs and others also with costs, not to mention the difficulty of getting all airlines to agree, thus IATA as a standards organisation is ultimately ineffective. And by standards I do not mean restrictions, the standard in the industry should allow for full flexibility, and it should evolve.
      But back to your point about full content, I think you have blurred some lines here. As I understand it, Airlines sometimes provide full content to the GDS, which does provide all the content to the travel agents. However, that does not mean that an Online Travel Agent would necessarily provide every possible solution, nor would a travel agent necessarily discuss every possible solution with a customer. That does not mean that the GDS is not providing full content. The travel agent are at liberty to show what they feel is the most attractive content to the end consumer. Mainly by cost and elapsed flying time, or stated customer preferences.
      As you say, let the market decide, GDSs while flawed in a way represent a market, airlines bring their product there to be sold and compared with others. Of course, airlines would prefer that the customers come to their shop where they have total control but this would only limit the customer options. If airlines find they can’t get all their products in the market, improve the standards for delivery, for everyone. Don’t just try to control the market.


      • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne


        I think we are getting closer to the issue at hand. I hope that I have clearly stated that everyone should be free to do what they will. No one has an automatic right to anything.

        At the moment the GDSs are not allowing (in some case there is no option) anything but full content. There are a number of disputes that this has caused. Your supposition that it is the airlines who are withholding content is in the main incorrect. In these clauses strictly enforced by the GDSs the definition is sometimes less or more depending on the contract signed – which in turn is determined by how diligent the respective lawyers were. Having read through some of these contracts I am amazed that they have been signed, there are some very punitive clauses. Thus to be clear this is not currently within the airlines’ ability to dissent. The Full Content should be fine if the GDS has the ability to display all the airlines content equally and fairly. Sadly this is not the case, some say its coming. Thus the airlines feel handcuffed because they have to abide by the delivery of the content whether or not the GDSs are actually displaying all of the content and whether they have the ability to do so.

        Voila my issue with Full Content vs Full Capability.

        The airlines have finally found a model to make money – ie by unbundling their products. Rightly or wrongly – this model works in the market. I think we all know there is significant dissatisfaction with this model the GDSs dont like it because they have to develop new functionality, the agents don’t like it because they have to work harder and most consumers don’t like it because they see it as a hidden price rise. That functionality however is not deployed in the intermediary except in a few isolated cases).

        The airlines in my opinion do want to have multiple channels of distribution. Having sat on both sides of the customer service fence I can assure you that airlines don’t want to have all the customers coming directly through them and that agents do a fine job of servicing the customers provided they have the right tools. Again I am pointing the finger at functionality or rather the lack thereof in the area of all the airline’s product.

        Remember – there are very few purists of the LCC model – a la Ryanair.

        There are standards out there. Indeed some of them have been ready for a very long time – such as EMD. Sadly neither IATA (in the form of BSP) nor the GDSs took the time to develop the support for this. Again the issue is missing functionality. The airlines didn’t wait and developed it in their own environments and want to give that out through the agency distribution system.

        In retrospect I should have given a primer on the whole unbundling issue rather than just picking on the high level subject of content vs functionality. But its so arcane as to have made most TNooz readers fall asleep.

        My point was and is – the missing capability/functionality inhibits the deployment of full content.



        • Art Godfried

          Hello Timothy, your last point is valid, but you are wrong in saying that the GDS is the problem. EMD is the perfect example! The concept of EMD has been around for a very long time but IATA’s standards have been around for a relatively short time. It took ages for them to finalise, and from there the GDSs, BSPs and airlines get to start working. Then when that is finished, the online travel agents do their work and normal travel agents learn how to do it. In this process, while I am sure every piece could be sped up, the biggest delay is IATA, and that really has to do with how they are set up and their capabilities.
          You are right content is a debatable word, but you give the wrong impression when you say that GDSs withhold content because they do not. There is no business case for them to do so. In some case, airlines do withold content, and frankly it is in their right to do so. They do it in all channels, the goal of revenue management is to sell to the right customer at the right price. This is for their gain not the customer’s.
          To me this is all circular logic, you say airlines complain that they cannot sell the content they want which is because of shortcomings in the technology being developed which is because of late standards being provided which is because the airlines can’t agree on a proper simple standard.
          It is easy to sit here and point out what is wrong, but there is no quick fix to the airline industry.


  8. Art Godfried

    I wish all this fluff would stop. The proliferation of misinformation and lobbying is unprecedented. Airlines created GDSs, then sold them for a nice profit (some still hold shares). Maybe the GDS commerical model is outdated but the issue of capability lies squarely with the industry itself, embodied by IATA. IATA is the airline industry political organisation that has been forced to be the source of industry standards. They are not good at it. Of course, no real innovation has ever come from this organisation. The dawn of the LCCs broke the mold and changed things, mainly because they had the luxury to start from scratch. Even if though today more and more of their practices are coming under scrutiny from consumer organisations Unfortunately, major airlines are unable to start from scratch. They can’t just drop their unneccessarily complex fare system. But they do want to have their cake and eat it too. But blaming the GDS is a distraction. Minor players like Farelogix and ITA are happy to cozy up to the airlines in the hopes that they will become the next GDSs, but they do not have any better functionality and currently lack the processing power. But the reality is that none of this will benefit the end customer. That is just a lie. And of course, sadomasichistic customers today that prefer to fly three or four legs can find that in the GDS, do you have an example?
    I don’t mean to sound pro-GDS becuase I am not. The airline industry is tough, very fragile and the airlines have it toughest of all. They get hit from all sides, political mandates, security, airport fees, fuel, etc. more than any business should. However, I had to respond because I just am anti-propaganda.


  9. Dan


    I don’t know how you do your shopping, but I tend to go to a supermarket. I could go to the green grocer for the beans, the butcher for steaks, the dairy farm for my milk, the papergoods store for the napkins, and so on, you get the idea. Instead, I choose to go to the supermarket because I don’t have time for the first scenario.

    A GDS is essentially a supermarket. Given the lavish incentives airlines heap on travel agents in the form of commissions these days (sarcasm intended), how much effort can they afford to make shopping for their client? Travel agents don’t have a great deal of time to waste, so they naturally appreciate a neutral display that shows direct flights before double connections. Why? Because that’s what the typical customer wants, and for those who are keen to look at a specific airline and make multiple connections for the pleasure of flying it, then there’s a GDS entry that satisfies that requirement, too.

    The situation you are favoring turns airlines, and maybe TMCs, into mini-GDS, and therefore competition for what you call the legacy GDS. Airlines are allowed to sell their product to anyone they choose in any way they wish, you claim, but what you fail to keep in mind is that they are not bound by the same rules of conduct as the GDS. For example, if American Airlines are competing with Sabre, isn’t it strange that AA can do whatever they want but rush to the courts the minute Sabre decide to give them less visibility on availability displays? How is that competing fairly? To use the same analogy as above: if a farmer refuses to sell the supermarket his beans, why should the supermarket be forced to put that same farmer’s carrots on its shelves? What you are preaching is not at all free enterprise and capitalism; what you are advocating is full rights for everyone except. and at the expense of, the GDS.

    Your constant GDS-bashing is getting a bit long in the tooth and is seriously impacting your credibility. But I guess I just don’t get it, like all the others who don’t subscribe to your bizarre views.

    • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

      Dan – you seem to be mistaking my advocacy of choice for something else.

      We all have the right to buy what and when we want. I prefer to buy in one supermarket because I like its selection of products more than another or I buy direct. I can choose to buy in one place or another because in the supermarket the issue of whether something is available or not is self evident.

      But bear with me – if I am SURE that the product is available and I cannot see it what do I do? I have to take the time to ask the store clerk (if I can find one) to go and get one for me. Or I can walk out and go buy it some place else. If he is lazy he will say its sold out. If he is diligent he will do right and tell me its true state of availability including at the back or coming in next week. But the supermarket analogy only goes so far. Perhaps a warehouse is more appropriate – with certain products out of easy reach vs those in easy reach. Which do we choose? If we think the price is the same we ignore the harder to reach ones. If we don’t know that the ones at the back are cheaper what do we do? (Assuming that price was our criteria – but I might actually like a brand that is harder to reach at the back at the same price).

      I cannot speak for AA in their debate with Sabre. On the surface it seems that Sabre’s actions were unilateral for no direct reason. Yes the contractual requirements work both ways.

      Since the US market has no code of conduct in place – you are right I think it should be a free for all – open and unencumbered. In Europe has Travelport’s action harmed AA? I cannot answer that question – ask an agency who has Galileo or Worldspan.

      May I suggest you go back and read the whole piece again. I was trying to focus on the fact that even if the airline is providing Full Content – it is at the mercy of the legacy GDS tools to provide that to the consumer. It seems that my attempt at pointing out the issues around Full Content and getting an understanding what the impact means is seen as GDS bashing. As Art points out below, our industry conventions force the consumer through some bizarre hoops to get a reasonable answer to his question. New Technologies enable better search.

      I have an expression I use. Its called being a little bit pregnant. No GDS has Full Content. In Europe that percentage of content of available product has dropped significantly. At the very least you have to take out the non-participating carriers. So do you need a multi-supply chain system (your term for a mini-GDS)? Absolutely if you are to provide full service value as an intermediary to your customers. That includes offering Rail on competitive routes.

      Questioning the ability of any system – GDS or Airline or third party to provide a range of answers to the consumer should be one we ask. Making a blanket assumption that everything is rosy is worth challenging – not bizarre.

      Thanks for your comments though


  10. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    Dear Daniele and Dennis

    I think that you missed the mark in my piece. What I am trying to expose is that there is a fundamental flaw in the logic that full content is everything.

    It is important to remember that there are limitations in any technology when you are searching over a wide amount of data. The ability to see all fairly is driven by input and constraining algorithms or physical technology. And we should all remember that airfares are very complex products.

    In my experience ITA et al do a better job than the GDSs in search. Do they scale? I believe that they do. Are they the best at their respective jobs? That is subjective.

    @Daniele. I could not agree with you more that it is the right of the seller to determine what he sells. A certain company based in Europe petitioned in 1997 that OTAs should be forced to comply with the GDSs regs extant at the time. A battle I personally fought and won with the EC by explaining to them the fallacy of such thinking.

    But if the total pool of available information is constrained – then the options of choice are limited. This in turn tends to hurt those who are not able to influence that decision making. Ultimately the customer suffers.

    For this reason the legacy GDS contingent can argue that their yield for air and hotel is better than on the direct channels. Surprisingly no one has seen fit to challenge the logic and thinking on this particular point. My point the yield is higher because the technology makes it harder to search for more competitive products.

    @Dennis. My argument on why the airlines should be allowed to do anything is based on the fact that it is their content. They should be able to do with it as they please. So everyone has the right:

    The airline who owns the product to determine their channels of distribution and the content/product they choose to move down the pipes

    The intermediaries should be free to determine what they sell purchased from where-ever and to whom they wish.

    The consumer should be free to purchase what he wants when he wants through whichever tool he chooses – including cross channel.

    To me that is the essence of free enterprise and capitalism. A system despite its faults I think we all buy into.

    Today the airlines engage in private arrangements with intermediaries. These bilateral arrangements are perfectly legal. Special fares access to specific classes etc etc.

    The GDSs enable that. Should they have the exclusive right to do that? Does that restrict the market for product and consequently restrain the free market (up or down) for the consumer?

    I hope that the point I am making which is that the full content which seems to be so sacred is subject to technical limitation structured in the architecture of the GDSs. This piece hopes to point that out and to just make sure that everyone is aware that there are limitations and alternatives. That is pro-choice. The availability of better technology to provide more appropriate choices for the consumer now exist. Anyone who says otherwise should have their heads examined. Again no one is perfect in this. However the opening up of the market to newer technologies and options should be something that we all encourage. Or is it that we have something to fear from either the GDSs or the airlines?

    I hope that this debate can continue. The consumer will ultimately benefit.


    • Glenn Gruber

      TOD, one of ironic things is that Hipmunk is getting so much credit for their “sort by agony” view, filtering out many of the multi-connection options that you refer to…using the ITA engine.

      On average I agree that more choice is better, but rarely are multi-leg itineraries better than more direct routes, so how much “harm” is being done? How frequent of a problem do you believe this is, or are we debating an outlier issue. I really don’t know and am asking this solely to seek knowledge on the topic.

      • Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

        Glenn – it is not ironic. It is quite simple. Most Americans travel within America. A double connection makes little sense within the USA. Hipmunk – still in beta – serves Americans.

        Americans also have a quirky little issue – they are time sensitive. Most Europeans are not as time sensitive. Therefore the value equation of time/cost is different based on the respective market.

        And would be happy to debate this issue separately.


  11. Dennis Schaal

    Dennis Schaal

    Timothy: I agree with Daniele that the article is one-sided in favor of the airlines. About those full-content agreements, actually they are a joke because the airlines save so much content for their own channels. The airlines, eager to feed their own direct channels, save as much content as possible for themselves, offering promotions to this “select” group of tens of thousands of users or that select group of tens of thousands of customers.

    Of course, I agree that many times the GDSs can’t handle airline content in the way airlines want to sell it. Hence, the direct connect and distribution debate.

    But, the games go both ways. The GDSs aren’t angels — and airlines aren’t either. Puleeez:)

  12. Daniele Beccari

    Sorry guys, total anti-GDS propaganda here.

    I hope you’re not trying to say that ITA and Everbread are revolutionary technologies because they can do better in that 1-in-a-million search “from Northern Europe secondary cities to Australasian secondary markets”?

    And I hope no one is thinking that a merchant (in any industry, country, and time) is a samaritan who will not promote its preferred partners and rates? Biased OTA display is a business decision of the merchant, and is not controlled by the GDS.

    Plug an OTA onto ITA, Everbread or even Farelogix (some day), and they will still bias in exactly the same way. Not a GDS issue.

    (My point: GDSs have plenty of issues, and you might be shooting at the right targets, but you must find relevant arguments).

  13. Tim

    The “sins” of the GDS’s are finally coming into the light.

    The Transportation Department said that online travel agencies and data distributors “have generally led the public to believe that they are transparent sources of the information they have and that the information they do provide is fairly presented.”

    Any company biasing its presentations must “clearly and conspicuously disclose that fact,” Podberesky wrote. A general notice sent by distributors to travel agents by e-mail or letter isn’t sufficient, he said.

    The GDS’s ability and desire to bias presentations (one carrier over another, etc.) is finally in the light.


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