Southwest Airlines has made its information technology infrastructure top priority to support the transition of subsidiary AirTran Airways' international flying to the parent airline from around two years' time. And Southwest candidly admits the integration effort has proved harder than expected.
Just prior to this year's Airline Business Innovation in Airline Distribution conference, Southwest reached a breakthrough agreement with IT provider Amadeus to implement a reservations system for the international services.
Southwest only operates US domestic services, while AirTran flies to Mexico and the Caribbean. These flights will transition to Southwest as the two airlines continue their integration efforts.
"There are plans to take Southwest metal into international markets, hopefully by 2014, and Amadeus will be the technology partner to help us launch that," Southwest's director of corporate sales and distribution Robert Brown told conference delegates.
The Amadeus move comes against a background at Southwest of previously working only with its GDS rivals - Sabre and Travelport. "We have a great and long-standing relationship with Sabre from a technology standpoint, and from a GDS/distribution perspective we have great relationships with Sabre and with Travelport," says Brown. "Amadeus came to the table with some great solutions and opportunities. They're also very successful in the international space."
Brown explains how the Dallas-based no-frills airline has traditionally had a "different distribution strategy to most airlines", but is now evaluating that as it integrates AirTran.
"One of things we learnt was that if you're not controlling your distribution, you can't control your costs," says Brown. "You also can't control your relationship with the customer. This became a very important lesson and set our distribution strategy going forward."
He adds that because of the success of southwest.com, from 2001 the airline decided to stop participating in online travel agencies. "So today we have a direct distribution model."
Southwest took over AirTran last year and its new division - which retains its brand as a wholly owned subsidiary - has a "very traditional" distribution model, says Brown. "They are partners with all the GDSs and provide them all with full content."
Significantly, Southwest's Amadeus deal also includes the option for the airline to use the IT provider for its domestic passenger service system in the future (AirTran currently uses the Navitaire New Skies platform).