Some airlines are manipulating schedules to get improved marketing visibility.When is a new route not a new route? Answer: When it's a codeshare, funnel flight, ghost flight, change of gauge, or yet another figment of a marketing executive's fertile imagination.

The intention behind the survey of new route developments in this issue of Airline Business was to use Reed Travel Group's schedules database to find out which airlines have been most active in launching new routes, which have tended to be successful, and which geographical regions have enjoyed the biggest growth in new air travel opportunities.

Whilst the survey provides all these insights, it also highlights how certain airlines are manipulating their schedules to give themselves a competitive advantage.

Draft versions of our survey included hundreds - yes, hundreds - of new routes which were not really new routes at all. Some were ghost flights, whereby certain carriers, mostly US ones, list multiple connecting flights through hubs under separate flight numbers. Typically, a single flight may be given a dozen separate flight numbers depending on the passenger's final destination.

Other phantom routes were codesharing flights with other carriers. In many cases, these appear at first sight to be new routes, but in practice they are merely existing routes or transfer connections which are being operated by a new partner airline.

In producing the survey, we decided to eliminate funnel flights on the grounds that the connections existed before and the 'new route' was really just a changed flight number. In doing so, we took out over 300 of the 500 new routes which had been identified. Funnel flights had clearly skewed the figures.

Codeshare flights were included in the survey. While the flights may have existed before, a codeshare usually represents an addition to a carrier's own network, and often rescheduling is involved to improve the connection. Codesharing accounted for 72 out of the 534 new routes.

All very inconvenient for people trying to analyse the airline industry. However, this issue is much more significant than that. Airline schedules form the basis of customers' travel decisions, whether they are accessed via computer reservations systems, timetables, printed travel guides, diskettes, CD-Rom or the Internet. Flight schedules are being manipulated to place certain carriers at an advantage, and that clearly must influence consumer choice.

Airlines that use funnel flights and codesharing are clearly obtaining better visibility in the marketplace for their products. This implies two things; airlines that do not use these techniques are missing a trick; and efforts to ensure that consumers are not misled by airline schedules are highly opportune.

All airlines would do well to reexamine the methods they use to ensure they appear to be offering direct service between as many city-pairs as possible. Some carriers, mainly the US majors, are highly effective in this regard. They list as many flights as are feasible, using ghost flights, change of gauge and codesharing much more aggressively than carriers from elsewhere, thus gaining an advantage in the marketplace.

It would be wrong to criticise airlines for using whatever techniques they can to attract custom. However, this must be done without misleading customers. It is therefore timely that British Midland has finally published its code of conduct.

British Midland, which codeshares with eight carriers, is keen to ensure that its ability to codeshare is not hampered by rules imposed by the European Commission or national authorities. Consequently, the carrier proposes that the industry adopt its own code of conduct. Its proposed code insists that all codesharing arrangements must increase the range of competition and choice available to the travelling public, and includes detailed measures to ensure that codesharing airlines take every opportunity to make passengers aware of which carrier is actually operating a particular flight.

There is a danger that airlines using electronic market manipulation may provoke a backlash among consumers. Regulations imposed externally may hinder carriers' ability to market their products and alliances legitimately and, as with the CRS code of conduct, the US may be reluctant to follow Europe's lead.

Many airlines have a lot to learn from the Americans about how to present their products to the consumer. But the line between aggressive marketing and deception is a fine one. The industry must show that it is not out to mislead consumers.

Source: Airline Business