Southwest Airlines made its debut in Atlanta, one of the nation’s biggest business travel markets, but some of the city’s corporate travel agencies have yet to feel the “LUV.”
Some local agents are saying the airline has yet to reach out to them. There is also speculation on how Southwest’s no-frills approach will resonate with their business customers and whether the airline will ever become a full partner in the GDSs.
A mixed reception among agents
“Nobody has called or come to see us,” complained Terry Brennan, president of Williamsburg Travel, an American Express representative. “We’re one of the largest agencies in town, and we would have thought we’d hear from them.”
Sarah Kay Harpring, who heads the corporate travel operation at All Points Travel in Sandy Springs, hadn’t heard from the airline either, even though she’s not a Southwest newbie. “I book a lot of Southwest for my clients on the West Coast and in Houston and Austin,” she said.
In contrast, Judy Borden of Aladdin Travel Service said Southwest representatives “have been terrific. They called to introduce themselves and are doing a very good job.”
Building corporate relationships
Aladdin is in Alpharetta, which may have gotten Southwest’s attention because it is home to hundreds of technology-related companies. The northern suburb’s economy remained relatively strong throughout the recession, even as unemployment in the rest of Georgia was in double digits.
Agents may be hearing more from Southwest in the future. “We recently added a new corporate relations manager in Atlanta, and we now we have two in the local market,” a spokeswoman said.
“Our primary goal is to build relationships with travel decision makers at the Fortune 1000 companies in the market, as well as work in tandem with their agency partners to book Southwest travel.”
Absorption of AirTran
The agents noted that many of their clients are big fans of AirTran, which was acquired by Southwest last year and ultimately will be absorbed by Southwest. The carrier expects to receive a single operating certificate, allowing it to combine the two fleets’ operations, in a couple of weeks.
Later this year, it will start allowing customers to book combined itineraries, although the full transition to a single, unified operation isn’t expected until sometime in 2015.
Although Southwest has said it will combine the best of both features of the two carriers, it has been clear that AirTran’s business class is not among them. AirTran frequent flyers who are fond of flying up front, and even fonder of being upgraded, aren’t happy about that.
“Everybody loves AirTran,” Borden said.
Cost-conscious customers will transition
Although Borden has a few premium-class-only clients, she said she believes that today’s economy will move cost-conscious travelers to make the transition to Southwest.
“They’ll do Business Select,” she said, referring to Southwest’s fare that allows priority boarding and other perks.
Brennan said his clients also aren’t looking forward to losing the reserved seat option, in addition to the comp upgrades.
As the economy improves, he believes Delta, the dominant carrier in town, might pick up a few former AirTran customers, although Southwest’s bags-fly-free policy may attract its own new fans.
Full participation in the GDSs?
Atlanta agents also are wondering whether Southwest will ever become a full participant in the GDSs. It participates at a very low level in Sabre, and it connects with agencies that “opt in” via Travelport’s Universal API.
Brennan said he enrolls his clients in SWAbiz, Southwest’s online booking program for business travelers, but as Southwest becomes a major player in Atlanta, he would like to see it in the GDSs.
He may have a long wait. Southwest’s resistance to GDS participation is not about its esteem of the travel agency distribution channel; rather, it simply does not relish side-by-side price comparisons with other carriers.
“There are not any immediate plans to modify our GDS distribution strategy to include full participation;” the Southwest spokeswoman said. “However, we will continue to seek opportunities to expand our distribution to more corporate channels.”
As an example, she cited Southwest’s new agreement with Egencia, Expedia’s corporate travel service. Egencia clients that have corporate agreements with Southwest will have direct access to the carrier’s fares and schedules through Egencia’s online booking tool. They also will be able to integrate Southwest bookings into their reporting.