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Two of the best decisions made by the General Services Administration, when developing and implementing a customized on-line Electronic Travel System for their civilian agencies, were to award the E-Travel contracts to more than one vendor, and to work closely with the Department of Defense to learn from their ‘experiences’.
When the GDS were first introduced to the public by American Airlines (Sabre) and United Airlines (Apollo) in the 70′s, it was a very basic reservation system. In fact, often times, the determining factor of which product a customer finally chose was the air carrier that had the majority of lift out of the airports from which the agency served its customers, since the agency only had last seat availability to offer their clientele on their host vendor.
Initially there was a foot race between American and United to automate the largest travel agencies with little regard to whether or not it was a good fit for the carrier or the customer! The numbers of total contracts signed were the only things by which success was measured. It wasn’t until the dust started to settle that terms and conditions were renegotiated, conversions made, and decisions based on quality business practices started to surface. The good news was that the strength of the competition drove these two vendors to rapidly deploy enhancements on a weekly and sometimes daily basis, just as it will for the GSA!
American and United visionaries had decided to use their capital funds to support, capture and control the distribution networks feeding their airlines. Many of their competitors were not only left far behind, but faced critical business decisions and financial ruin after the fact because of inbuilt biases and costs of usage passed onto them by the GDS vendors. It wasn’t too long before the reservations systems themselves were regulated by the federal government to help level the playing field and remove the financial strain of these systems on various airlines. Quite recently the deregulation of these systems finally occurred. It was only allowed because the biggest GDS were no longer owned by the airlines.
Some of the problems still linger with the evolution of the GDS. One of the most obvious is namely that the systems were developed to be utilized by travel professionals who are versed in many acronyms, abbreviations and codes used throughout the travel industry. The GDS was never intended for use by the lay person. Finally, we are starting to see user friendly products that are pre-populated with scripts, shortcuts and prompts which guide the everyday user thru the reservation process.
The caveat I offer is that each time the GDS product is ‘enhanced’ someone is making the decision for you. This can be used to your advantage or work against you. It is only a tool. Garbage in! Garbage out! For example, you can be shown only what they wish you to see, whether it be airline schedules, hotels and/or car companies. They can bias displays toward preferred vendors and/or products, thereby increasing their rebates and/or reducing their costs. Whether these ‘benefits’ are actually passed onto the customer or enjoyed by the vendor will ultimately depend upon the strength of the contract negotiators, the auditing procedures and a working knowledge of the system being used.
And, finally, by working with the Department of Defense personnel, who are well into the process of developing and implementing their on-line booking tool, in addition to their front end systems (approval, regulation and compliance), and back end systems (financial, expense and reporting), the decision makers at the General Services Administration have gone a long way to keep the cost of their products competitive for their customers by not having to go down the various paths already traveled by the DOD on the initial mission. They obviously benefit from these experiences learned and successes achieved by the Department of Defense.
It’s a new ball game for the GSA! The General Services Administration can no longer rest on mandated guidelines for Agencies to use their services and/or products. They must be on the top of their game plan at all times, so that they can compete, win and establish their reputation as a world-class vendor/supplier for their clientele, while at the same time being a watchdog for unnecessary costs borne by the American tax payers. Amid all the questionable publicity, Hill hearings, and constant criticism, at least on this project, the General Services Administration is a winner! The project leaders/managers and decision makers have adopted the best business practices that are alive and well in the private sector and are introducing them in a cost-effective and professional manner within our United States government community. My hats off to them and welcome to the modern age!
By Linda Colvos