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Thu 3 Apr 2008 04:00 AM

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Cutting out the middle man

Travel agents' feathers have been ruffled by recent attempts by airlines to target the consumer directly.

Travel agents' feathers have been ruffled by recent attempts by airlines to target the consumer directly.

Dubai travel agents are getting increasingly perturbed by the direct-sell tactics of both regional and international airlines.

They claim that airlines are offering lower fares online than are offered to them as travel trade partners.

We offer the same fares on the GDS that we do online.

In addition, airlines are offering added extras such as double frequent flyer points to customers that book with them direct.

As a result, the Dubai Travel and Tour Agents Group (DTTAG) broached the subject at a recent meeting with European carriers including British Airways, Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa, Air France/KLM and SWISS, as well as Gulf Air.

"We want to reach an agreement with the airlines so they offer the same fares to agents that they offer online," said DTTAG manager Leo Fewtrell. "Some airlines argued that these fares came from their headquarters and they had no control over what was sent out, but they promised to look into it.

Speaking at the meeting, one DTTAG member, Nasir Khan, the general manager of Al Naboodah Travel in Dubai, made the point that customers believed they were not being efficiently served by the trade if they could not offer the same fares that were posted online.

He also stressed that it was the fare that was the issue, not the fact that airlines were offering internet deals, and that airlines should also consider that once agencies had added their service fees and mark-ups, they were priced out of the market compared to online promotional fares.

As a result of discussions, airlines attending the meeting unanimously agreed they were not allowed to undercut market fares on the internet and wanted all agents to be able to book products via the GDS systems, said Fewtrell.

British Airways commercial manager for the Middle East Paul Starrs later told ATN that BA currently applied a "channel neutral" strategy to fare distribution.

"This means we distribute all our fares across all selling channels; the same fares are available on ba.com as are available to the travel trade," he said.

"This strategy ensures the travel trade remains our most important and valued selling channel and that our direct selling channels compete on a level playing field with the trade.

Qatar Airways' regional manager for the UAE, Pakistan, Bahrain, Iran and Afghanistan, Abdul Qadir Aziz, confirmed that the Doha-based carrier operated a similar policy: "We offer the same fares on the GDS as we do online and are committed to working closely with the travel trade," he said.

BA under fire

Online fares aside, BA's Paul Starrs has also been slammed by Al-Futtaim Travel general manager Mike Booker for writing an article to Dubai tabloid 7 Days encouraging customers to book with ba.com, with no mention of booking through the trade.

Starrs said his letter primarily explained the benefits of BA's new terminal 5 in response to a 7 Days reader comment slating London Heathrow and that he mentioned the benefits of booking with ba.com at the end of his prose.

In his defence, he added: "First and foremost I would like to re-iterate that we fully support the travel trade in Dubai and in the UAE.

"As for the promotion of our company, ba.com is the single most important gateway to British Airways and is for many customers, the first point of contact that they have with us, whether it be to make a booking, upgrade their ticket, check-in for a flight, print their boarding card, or generally managing their booking.

"In short, ba.com is far more than a booking website; this is why we promote it above all other channels and we will not be changing this policy of promoting ba.com in the near future.

"For those agents who object to this self promotion I say, visit ba.com, look at the added value services it provides, then ask yourselves a couple of basic questions: ‘How do I provide added value to my customers?' and ‘How will I compete effectively when the UAE market is fully matured?'

"I'm pleased to say that there are agents in the Middle East that are already asking and addressing these questions and it is these agents that will flourish and prosper in the future.

We will continue to develop strong and profitable partnerships with travel agents that provide the most added value to our mutual customers.

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