Virgin clips Qantas ambitions with DIY interoperability

Low-cost, Australian-made software has emerged as a major competitive threat for Australia's dominant airline Qantas.

Rival Virgin Blue has upped the stakes by reengineering its bargain-basement booking engine which will become interoperable for both international and domestic passenger bookings on a single ticket within days.

The world-first upgrade to Virgin's booking engine, OpenSkies (produced by Accenture subsidiary Navitaire), represents a coup for the airline, which has been wrestling for three years to make the software port into other airline systems.

Virgin's Web-based booking system will now carry the level of functionality enjoyed by its rival, but at a fraction of the per-transaction cost.

Specifically, Virgin will now be able to code-share (which lets airlines sell tickets under another airline's flight "code") and book customers on multiple airlines and flights on a single ticket: a capability previously restricted to more costly, hosted, global, travel distribution systems such as Amadeus.

Sister international carrier Virgin Atlantic will be the first beneficiary of the new agreement with other international airlines expected to follow in due course.

A rather modest Virgin Blue CIO Nick Brant told Computerworld that while Virgin Atlantic uses the cooperative SHARES (Shared Airlines Reservations System) for its bookings, passengers should see a seamless transition to a single ticket.

"They are selling their flights as our flights - it works out well. We've worked for a long time to get this up and running and this [software interoperability] is the infrastructure platform that lets us take it to where we want to go. We'll see how it goes," Brant said, philosophically adding he expects to be squashing a few bugs as the new system fires up.

In terms of how the project developed, Virgin's local IT staff are understood to have worked closely with Navitaire in making the carrier an interoperability test bed, largely because Virgin was a keen early adopter of the Web-based booking engine since starting it five years ago.

"It's a joint project between Virgin Blue, Virgin Atlantic and Navitaire. It's not a product so much as a capability. Navitaire had to do a lot of work at the messaging level to make this possible. We run OpenSkies as an integrated reservation solution on the central server and we run networks out to a lot of our ports for access to that. It runs on a HP server - anyone who runs OpenSkies runs on that platform," Brant said.

Meanwhile, Virgin's management is selling the new capability as a competitive differentiator against Qantas' code-share business which analysts estimate represents about 15 percent of the incumbent carrier's domestic passenger load. Asked what market share Virgin hoped to capture, a company spokesperson said "as much as humanly and legally possible".

Ironically, competing low-cost Qantas subsidiary JetStar is also an OpenSkies customer. Briefing analysts and media last September, Qantas CIO Fiona Balfour dismissed JetStar's lack of code-sharing and inter-lining capability as a competitive issue, insisting "interlinining on low-cost carriers will only happen when they get the revenue".

Neither Qantas nor JetStar were available for comment.

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