Currently, most of the travel agents are focussed on both front and backend technologies, but the greater emphasis is on getting the backend systems in order.
The backend system comprises of the computerised reservation system (CRS) which completely removes manual intervention in the reservation process. Airlines and travel agents communicate seamlessly through this system. The CRS is supported by three companies formed by the airlines themselves - Amadeus, Galileo and Abacus. The CRS run by these companies is totally interoperable. The CRS operates on a satellite backbone and of late Amadeus has been upgraded for the Net as well whereby it can cover more agents at lower cost.
A few well known travel agents have also started creating their own sites through which they provide information. However, the real challenge in India is the payment gateway system. The payment gateway system is not yet developed here as a result of which travel agents are not yet able to undertake online bookings. The Websites largely contain just information.
SOTC, the outbound division of Kuoni Travel (India) Ltd, uses Amadeus CRS for airline bookings. However, since SOTC is in the business of operating group-packaged tours in series, it reserves block seats in advance, directly with the contracted airlines and liaisons with them for operations as well.
Amadeus India has provided SOTC with an Amadeus terminal (PC) with a user ID and password. This system works on a dedicated leased line between their office and SITA (Societe Internationale de Telecommunication Aeron-autiques). SITA continues to be the only organisation to provide both the global network services, the IT infrastructure and IT applications that enable air transport organisations to work seamlessly.
From SITA telecommunications, the lines are connected to the Airlines office where the airline backend system is operational.
Some of the travel agents have a similar system for hotel reservations also. While others hire ground handling agents at various destinations to serve the purpose.
Says SOTC chief operating officer Zubin Karkaria, We do not deal with hotels directly. We have contracted ground handling agents at each destination who make the necessary arrangements for all services including hotels, meals, entrance to sightseeing attractions, transfers, etc. Since we offer packaged tours to our customers, we use a customised business application to book a tour that bundles everything.
The aviation sector which comprises a massive chunk of the travel business globally, is still licking its wounds a year after sustaining a crippling body blow from the September 11 attacks on the US. The sector posted a net loss of $12 billion last year, which also involved the loss of jobs and the grounding of aircrafts. According to an airline sources, Against this backdrop, there has been an rise in investment in Internet technologies within the industry only to beef up the security systems. However, in the wake of the crisis, the other projects have been deferred.
In the aviation industry, the initial wave of excitement around auction bid sites for tickets has also peaked and dipped internationally. Now the emphasis is back to basics and to short-term cost savings.
The airlines continue to focus on their own Websites as the most important channel of online distribution, although only a little more than half of the sales are actually made on such sites.
As far as online ticket sales is concerned, according to the Airline IT Trend Survey 2002 by SITA, the proportion of tickets sold over the Web has grown to just over 10 per cent for the typical carrier based on a crude average.
Even though the online bookings for travel purposes are quite popular in western countries, in India it has not gained ground yet. For, Indians still prefer to call up the neighbourhood travel agent, who then sends an executive across to discuss travel plans.
A key factor that comes to play for travel agencies in India is the fact that their overhead costs, especially their labour costs, continue to be cheaper when compared with the western countries.
According to Raj Tours and Travels MD, Lalit Sheth, We provide hassle free services to our customers. We are in a position to listen to specific needs of our clients and then accordingly offer the right choice. For online bookings, there are few options available for the customers.
In India, with authorities not allowing a traveller access into the airport, without a physical ticket, e-ticketing is still far away. According to airline sources, some airlines were ready to launch e-ticketing in India, but were awaiting clearance from the government. Said Mr Karkaria, Our escorted tour customer is not very Internet savvy by nature. He still prefers and requires lot of information across the counter. Hence, he is more comfortable when our sales representative helps him with the information required and the booking formalities. It will take a couple of years before individuals start actively using the Internet for travel bookings. At that point, we shall start developing our backend systems so that when the market has matured for on-line bookings, our systems will be in place.