Travel suppliers seek standards, open systems

Travel companies and the technology vendors that serve them are calling for open standards to integrate travel packages, but the industry is so mired in legacy technology that it will likely be fighting that battle for years.

At its first Travel Technology Conference here, online travel analyst firm PhoCusWright Inc. brought technology vendors and their travel industry customers here to talk about the IT challenges facing the industry.

Almost uniformly, they spoke of the need for standards. Although the Open Travel Alliance is a developing standard, companies such as Orbitz LLC can't wait for that to happen and are going ahead on their own, said Alex Zoghlin, chief technology officer at Chicago-based Orbitz.

Orbitz's servers run on Linux, and its Web services are based on Java technology.

The shift to standards appears to be centered on two key problems, according to Jeremy Wertheimer, president and CEO of ITA Software Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. First, the travel industry needs to get sophisticated about its customer transactions, which will mean moving data between suppliers, such as hotels and airlines, through Web services. Second, he said, suppliers are faced with the consolidation and eventual removal of legacy back-end systems.

Clearly, travel suppliers and the companies that distribute their products, called global distribution systems, are ready to move onto newer technology.

The plan for any legacy system should include a plan for replacement, said Paul Bahnick, vice president of technology at Travel Impressions Ltd., a wholly owned subsidiary of New York-based American Express Co. that provides wholesale travel packages to travel agents. Bahnick said he has built middleware that accommodates both his legacy systems and his newer databases, so he can gradually shut off the older machines. "We just refuse to spend another dollar on the legacy system itself," he said.

Craig T. Murphy, CTO at travel IT provider Sabre Holdings Corp., said he didn't think Sabre would be investing a lot more intellectual property in its transaction processing facility. Fort Worth, Texas-based Sabre sold its transaction processing facility hosting business to Plano, Texas-based Electronic Data Systems Corp., and its IT investments are now almost entirely on development of new technology, Murphy said.

Both vendors and travel companies were split as to which Web services platform they preferred, Microsoft Corp.'s .Net or Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java and Java 2 Enterprise Edition. Most of the larger suppliers, especially those who do transactions online, prefer Java, while some of the smaller companies go with .Net because it's less costly to develop.

However, one serious stumbling block to standards is that many smaller hotels and travel agencies are barely computerized.

"Probably 70 percent of our business is still done by fax," Bahnick said.

Satish Mahajan, vice president and CIO at AAA, formerly known as the American Automobile Association, said he can't yet implement a national customer relationship management (CRM) program, because Heathrow, Fla.-based AAA's 81 member clubs have different back-end systems that suit their sizes and membership needs.

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More about American Express AustraliaElectronic Data SystemsITA SoftwareMicrosoftNewer TechnologyOpen Travel AllianceOrbitzPhoCusWrightSabre CorpTravel Impressions

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