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Aggregated XML based dissemination of Travel Industry Services

Research Methods

Assignment 3: Developing a Research Proposal



Aggregated XML based dissemination of Travel Industry Services



            Author: Fiach Reid

            Course: Msc Computers and International Business

            Module: Research Methods

            Date: 28/11/2005







The travel industry has been one of the earliest adopters of electronic commerce. Since the 1980’s global distribution systems (GDS) have been in place to enable availability checks, and remote reservation of flights and hotels over modem connections. Unfortunately, much of this legacy technology is still extremely prevalent, and equally outdated.


The overall objective of this proposed research is to introduce an alternative, more modern alternative to the legacy GDS systems available today. This alternative system is based on the notion of service aggregation, which provides backwards-compatibility with older systems, with the flexibility to be expanded to cover any conceivable travel service.


It is proposed that both qualitative empirical measurements and quantitative surveys would be carried out in order to assess customer acceptance of the new system once deployed.



1.0   Introduction


The basis of this research is the idea of data aggregation, this, in essence means that data streams of various formats are combined together into one source of data which is in one single format.


An example of information aggregation could be used, for instance, to combine data from various stock exchanges, such as the NASDAQ, and FTSE, so that a customer could check prices of shares from both UK and US companies in the same place. In this context, we envisage the use of an aggregation service for travel agency GDS systems, aggregated with data extracted from websites. This would mean that a customer could check prices from Ryanair and Air France in the same place.


It may not be immediately apparent the benefits of such a service to the travel industry, but it fundamentally affects the way in which people book flights, how travel agents sell flights, and how travel service providers such as airlines and hotel chains disseminate their availability information.


From a customer’s perspective, it would mean faster and more streamlined holiday booking process. It would mean, that they could visit one website, and be sure that they were totally informed of their flight options before booking. Currently, if you visit a travel website, you will oftentimes be given the option to book from one airline only (i.e. www.easyjet.com) or at best from one GDS network (www.opodo.com) the latter would not include airlines that are not included in that particular GDS network – which would notable exclude low cost airlines such as RyanAir and EasyJet.


Current GDS systems offer an option to add a margin to offered flights, from which travel agents make their profit. The proposed aggregated solution would also provide a mechanism for agents to add both a percentile or flat-rate markup to travel products. It should also make the sales process more streamlined for travel agents, because, as discussed later in this proposal, there would be a function to calculate multi-leg journeys combining flights from different operators. With current technology, travel agents would need to manually calculate multi-leg combinations, if the airline data was coming from different sources (i.e. website & GDS)


Travel service providers such as Airlines and Hotels could also find benefit in this system, with an easier technical integration process with their own internal booking systems. Since the proposed solution is based on modern web service technology which is natively supported in many programming languages, it should be easier to integrate than older legacy systems, which rely on proprietary protocols.


1.1    Problem statement


Current aggregation systems do exist, and to be fair, GDS systems themselves are constituted by data feeds from proprietary booking systems generated by airlines. Amadeus GDS comprises availability information from 742 airlines, of which 441 [1] can be sold on-line via the Amadeus interface. This is not, by all means all airlines in the world.


Other GDS systems exist, such as Galileo, Sabre, and WorldSpan. These all have proprietary interfaces, and are not particularly interoperable. Efforts have been made to create modern XML interfaces to these systems, and this has resulted in the creation of a plethora of new standards, and technologies, none of which have become the industry standard. – The proposed system would be designed to be backwards compatible, so that it could facilitate a more gradual migration for customers.


In an ideal world, this information would be free. However, all of the above GDS systems are quite expensive to run, and are generally charged on a per query basis. This means that every time a potential customer asks for flight information in a travel agent, the travel agent is charged to perform a GDS lookup regardless of whether a sale is made – The system outlined in this document may also require payment for transactions made, especially if the back-end system was making a lookup to a pay-per-query GDS system. However, a differentiation could be made between free to query and paid query searches.


GDS providers not only charge their travel agents, but airlines also pay a set-up fee to be integrated with their service. This fee is prohibitive to low-cost-airlines, and thus many opt not to be listed, and sell direct to the consumer via their website. In this system, a facility would be provided for the airline to provide its data freely to the service, or else, allow third parties provide middleware between the airlines’ website and the aggregation service.


1.2    Proposed research


The research proposed is the design and implementation of a prototype aggregation system which would offer all the functionality of the existing GDS systems, this would include

                     Flight availability & booking

                     Hotel availability & booking

                     Negotiated fares (Bulk, or otherwise discounted fares privately negotiated between agents and suppliers)

                     Holiday package reservation

          Miscellaneous leisure services (Car hire, Exhibitions, concerts etc)


Being able to pay for flight and hotel reservations via the system would be a key feature of the system. This could either be implemented by associating each transaction with an account, and settling accounts through standard processes. Otherwise, transactions could be carried out via the system using credit card transactions, or direct debit authorizations.


The system would also require functionality to automatically combine flights, so for instance if somebody wanted to fly from Belfast to Toronto, the system could automatically choose a route via London, based on price and time availability.

Expandability would need to be a key feature of the system, to allow different types of miscellaneous travel services to be booked. This would allow new forms of transport to be added as the system gained popularity – such as trains, busses, taxis’ etc.


In order to ease the transition for agents to the new system, backwards compatibility would be a key issue. This would mean that software which was designed for use with Amadeus could be easily patched to work with the new system, without major overhaul, or investment in re-training staff or purchasing of new hardware or software.


Security and authentication would be also necessary, since certain aspects of the service may be pay-per-query based operations. Also, it would be possible for some agents to buy flights and be invoiced at a later date, therefore, it would be necessary to ensure that unauthorized persons could not book flights on another’s behalf.


Continuing the theme of authentication, it would be necessary to ensure that the system was purged of any bogus data. This could occur when a travel service provider accidentally or purposefully feeds data into the system which contains inaccurate information. It would be envisaged that rules could be applied to the data as it enters the system, and if the information fell outside the normal parameters it could be quarantined. For instance, it is impossible to fly from London to New York in one hour, and it will probably cost somewhere in the region of £100 to £1,000. Anything outside of these parameters could be sent back to the travel service provider (airline) to be cross checked manually.


Since the data would be fed live from many different sources with varying latencies, it would be necessary for the system to respond in an asynchronous manner. This would permit any “slow” sources to return data later in the feed than “faster” sources. The XML would be structured so that partial functionality would be available, even with incomplete feeds. – This would also allow for degraded functionality in the event of corrupted feeds.


A call back feature would also be useful. In this way it would be possible for airlines to notify Travel Agents of upcoming price reductions, and other special offers.

2.0   Background


Currently the most common aggregation system for flight and travel information are GDS systems. There are four major GDS systems available, WorldSpan, Amadeus, Galileo, and Sabre.


Sabre is the largest GDS system in America market share (Wiig, 2004), and drives many high profile websites including Travelocity.com. The system operates over either a proprietary protocol named Sabre SDS (Structured Data Stream) or the more legacy X.25 protocol.


Galileo is the second most important GDS system after Sabre with a market share of 22% as measured in terms of number of travel agencies having access to the system. Galileo has acquired the travel website trip.com, which is well known worldwide. The system operates using either EDIFACT (Electronic Data Interchange for administration, commerce and Transport) or X.25.


Worldspan (Granados 2003) provides the GDS system behind many high profile travel websites, most notably www.expedia.com, a travel service established by Microsoft. Worldspan is jointly owned by Delta, Northwest and American Airlines. WorldSpan operates over the MATIP (Mapping of Airline Traffic over Internet Protocol).


Amadeus is viewed as the European counterpart for Worldspan accounting for 60% market share in Europe. Amadeus is jointly owned by Air France, Iberia and Lufthansa. This GDS system operates over MATIP or Telnet.


With such a diverse range of protocols and communication types it creates difficulties in standardising the various systems. Some of the protocols mentioned above are not Internet based – X.25 for instance, and thus loose out on many of the advancements in Internet connectivity, such as broadband DSL (Digital Subscriber Lines), and Wireless Networks. Proprietary protocols also have difficulty negotiating through corporate firewalls which will by default, not recognise the traffic and block it.


There is a general trend of modern communications systems to leverage standard Internet technologies. In the field of business to business communications, XML (Extensible Markup Language) is becoming increasingly prevalent. The XML format is widely accepted in the industry, and is used for all types of transactions, from financial services to travel services.


Some initiatives do exist to aggregate the existing GDS systems to XML, the most notable of these are SITA (Société internationale de télécommunications aéronautiques),

OTA (Open Travel Alliance) and TORIX (Tour Operator Reservations in XML).


SITA is an aggregator for the four main GDS suppliers (Amadeus, Galileo, WorldSpan and Sabre), it also supplies data from smaller CRS (Computer reservation systems) such as TravelSky and SHARES. It is based upon the SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), which is the XML based technology behind Web Services.


The OTA provides a much wider range of members than SITA, including the four main GDS suppliers, and hundreds of other well known airlines (American Airlines, Continental Airlines, Delta Airlines etc.) and hotel chains. They published their XML specification in 2002, and it is well known within the industry.


TORIX is a small Irish based initiative to aggregate data feeds into XML from tour operators. It currently runs on the TUI/Thomson network, and supplies this data to travel agents and retailers.


2.1    Literature review


When undertaking a project such as this it is worthwhile looking at how other companies have avoided or negated the issue of GDS fees and dealing with the plethora of legacy technologies which comes along with them.


Orbitz (www.orbitz.com) is a good case in point. This company was set up jointly in 2001 by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, and United (Granados, 2003). In order to avoid reliance on legacy system infrastructures and high GDS and CRS fees, they used a joint system, collecting flight schedules and flight tariffs separately.


They collected fares directly from the Airline Tariff Publishing Company (www.atpco.net), which collects and distributes fares from airlines worldwide and schedules from OAG (www.oag.com)


This is not an ideal situation, since it makes it more complex to collect airfares, and any inconsistency or latency issue between the two feeds could lead to incorrect information


3.0   Proposed work


In order to provide such a system, the first step would be to sign up to each of the four GDS suppliers, in order to obtain live data feeds in whatever format they provided. These feeds would be read via their own proprietary protocol, reformatted, and then sent out to the client as XML over HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). It would be envisaged that Web Services would be used to provide the interface, to permit ease of use by clients.


Since GDS systems incur fees, and they do not include many budget airlines, it would be necessary to expand the system such that data from low-cost-airlines could also be collected, and used transparently with the rest of the system. This would be done by adding modules to the Web Service, so that where a request was received that contained a route that was serviced by an operator not included in GDS, it could make a request to that airline’s website, and parse the results returned.


The web site integration as described above could either be carried out by the airline itself, or by a third party, for a fee. This particular style of integration may cause difficulties as it depends on the airline’s website remaining static, and not changing structurally, or else the integration would need to be performed again.


In order to access the success of such a system, it would be necessary to carry out customer satisfaction surveys, and supplier acceptance surveys. These could be used to Gauge if the benefit to the consumer outweighs the inconvenience to the Travel Supplier and Agents who would necessarily need to upgrade certain aspects of their IT infrastructure.


3.1    Aims & Objectives


The overriding aim of this project would be to provide a system which would encourage primary travel providers (airlines/hotels) to use modern protocols, instead of relying on “lowest-common-denominator” distribution systems.


The overall effect of this would be that it would reduce the monopoly position of the four major GDS systems. Increased competition would reduce costs for consumers and travel agents alike, and produce a more streamlined service for all parties involved.

3.2    Hypothesis & Rationale


The hypothesis behind this research is that the added benefit afforded by the functionality of an XML based system would compensate for the inconvenience of the inevitable client’s changeover between heterogeneous systems.


Software companies rarely produce applications that are backwards compatible with computers that are 10 years old. Although, this would open a market to a fraction more of the population, it would fail to leverage the added functionality inherent in modern computers. By embracing new technology, the consumer base will upgrade to the new technology gradually, and will appreciate the extra functionality over time.


In the same way, primary travel industry providers need not rely on legacy systems to distribute their pricing and availability data to retailers and agents. Travel agents will also

Upgrade to the new technology.


To support the changeover, travel service providers should provide a dual system for a period of time, allowing customers a grace period to upgrade their systems. Support for the legacy system could be withdrawn gradually, and eventually terminated at a forewarned time.

3.3    Methodology


Evaluating a completed system would be a crucial part of the process. This would be better carried out while the system was still in its infancy, and not deployed over multiple sites worldwide. The buy-in or acceptance rate of travel service providers, and agents could be measured empirically. If no airline is interested in publishing its flight pricing and availability data through this system, it is not going to be of any added benefit to the consumer. Likewise, if no travel agent agrees to evaluate the service, it would be equally pointless, as the consumer would not be able to buy flights through the system.


Customer acceptance could also be measured through surveys, asking people what they thought of the system, and how easy the found it to use, and integrate with their existing IT systems. This information could be used to look for ways to improve the service, through proposed features suggested in the surveys

3.4    Preliminary Design of System


The system would be based on Web Services. These are software modules which reside on Web servers, which communicate with other software modules via XML over HTTP (Reid, 2003). The back-end of these software modules would contain interfaces to the four main GDS systems, plus be expandable to include custom modules, such as website-integrated airlines. 


In order to support the vast number of concurrent users who could potentially use the system, it would be envisaged that a network of load balanced servers would be used to handle the volume of traffic. Load balanced servers are a cluster of machines that automatically delegate work between each-other. A distributed database could also be used to maintain state information between these servers.


An important aspect of the system is its backwards compatibility with legacy GDS systems. The purpose of this backwards compatibility is so that software based on GDS could still continue to operate with minimal change. It would be envisaged that this would be implemented by encapsulating the GDS commands (protocol) in XML, so that the client application would simply wrap the outgoing requests in a predefined XML enclosure. Although this mode of operation would not provide the full functionality of the system, it would permit for ease of integration with legacy systems.

3.5    Preliminary results

The author of this report is working closely with a company named Cheap Flights International  to develop a means of aggregating integrated website scanning modules together. This product has a limited web service interface, which allows, for the meantime, functionality to add flights to the distributed database, and perform some basic utilities such as converting airport names to IATA (International Air Transport Association).


Currently this service covers something near thirty different airlines, and has successfully retrieved details for over 30 million flights. Although this is nowhere near the scope of a typical GDS system with 400+ airlines, nor provides functionality to book flights, it does not incur GDS fees to operate.


Further research and development work would be required to provide the full functionality as outlined in section 1.2.

4.0   Summary


In summary, a typical travel agent that one would find in any high street would be using a GDS system, which has changed little since the 1980’s. These systems are outdated and fail to leverage modern advances in Internet technology such as broadband or wireless Internet. Furthermore they are expensive to operate, since the companies running these GDS systems have a monopoly on the market. The cost of which are so prohibitive that some budget airlines opt not to be included in GDS networks, therefore making it more difficult for agents and consumers see the broader picture of all available flight options.


The solution proposed in this paper is the development of an aggregated XML system, which would combine all the features of the existing GDS network, and combine that data with information collected freely from other sources, including the airline’s websites themselves. The advantage of this system is that it is more modern, and thus takes advantage of recent developments in Internet technology, and hopefully lower costs to the agents and consumers.

4.1    Significance of the research


It is inevitable that the travel industry will migrate away from legacy GDS systems. With so many initiatives to move to XML afoot, it seems likely that this is the way the industry will turn.


If the XML specification developed and demonstrated in this research was proven to be more encompassing or simpler to implement than other proposals, then it could be adopted worldwide.


The knock effects of this system could include quite significant development costs for larger operators, and widespread upgrades of legacy software at many travel agent outlets. However, the benefits would be immediately apparent. For instance, a typical X.25 connection runs at 64kbs, whereas a DSL connection, which can be operated for the same cost, runs at speeds up to 4,000 kbps. This would mean that travel agents could search for and book flights quicker, and thus have shorter queues of people waiting to be served.


4.2    Original contribution


How this differs from many of the XML-based proposals now on the drawing board is that this system does not only focus on the integration of existing GDS networks, but it allows for free inclusion of airlines and operators who are not currently part of GDS. This would be achieved through reading the fares directly from the operator’s website. It has already been proven with research carried out by the author at Cheap Flights, that this is possible, and cost effective. With the inclusion of new operators costing approximately £100 per airline, thus a GDS scale deployment could be achieved for approximately £44,000 which is within the budget of medium sized companies. This cost could be recouped through either booking fees, sign up fees or advertising.


Another original aspect of the system is that is backwards compatible with the legacy GDS systems, to allow for gradual upgrades of legacy software. This is achieved through XML encapsulation of the underlying GDS protocols.

5.0   References


The following Internet resources were used for reference while writing this document. It should be noted that these documents may not have been peer reviewed, and thus the information may not be accurate





United Nations – EDIFACT standard



5.1    Bibliography Section




Wiig, A. (2004). Denmark, Developing countries and the tourist industry in the internet age: The Namibian case


Reid, F. (2003), Donegal. Network programming in .NET, With C# and Visual Basic .NET

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