With its new joint sales initiatives, the Qualiflyer grouping could be stealing a march in the alliance stakes.

The promise of seamless customer service from the global alliances may seem a little distant, but progress appears to be under way. At the forefront has been a series of announcements from Europe's Qualiflyer grouping, led by the SAirGroup and its belief that alliances need to be more than loose marketing arrangements.

In June, it stepped forward to unveil the Qualiflyer Customer Call Centre (QCCC). Admittedly, the launch was overshadowed by news of shifts in the alliance's transatlantic relationships (in the wake of the Air France/Delta tie-up) and SAir's announcement that it would effectively bring Swissair and Sabena under a single management umbrella. But QCCC should not be ignored.

The aim of the new company, jointly owned by SAir, Austrian Airlines, Sabena, TAP Air Portugal and AOM, is a "worldwide call centre concept", offering a 24h global reservation service for the 11-strong Qualiflyer Group. QCCC runs call centres in London, Orebro (Sweden) and Istanbul. The plan is to add centres in Frankfurt, Milan and New York this year, and an Asia-Pacific office next. An eastern European office is also on the cards.

Open for business from "seven to eleven", seven days a week, the centres deal with booking, ticketing and information requests via telephone and e-mail. They will eventually provide a "callback service" for requests deposited on the Qualiflyer Group website.

The London and Orebro centres handle calls originating in the UK and Ireland for all the alliance partners. Coverage will soon be extended across Scandinavia and Finland. The centres, based in third countries, also link to "home market" call centres in Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Brussels and Lisbon.

QCCC does not accept the logic that there would be economies of scale from a single giant call centre rather than these local offerings. The operation's chief executive, William Pattison, says a global spread of offices means Qualiflyer will effectively be able to deliver 24h contacts at local call rates and in local languages, in a way that would be too expensive from a single location.

He adds that bouncing incoming calls to the centre with the relevant languages makes more sense than searching for and retaining gifted linguists in an area where such skills may be in short supply. Eight languages are already catered for and the opening of an Asia-Pacific office will add to that number.

While QCCC will effectively be subsidising incoming calls, Qualiflyer has enough financial clout to negotiate good deals with telecommunications suppliers.

Pattison's task is to provide a pay-back in three years for the undisclosed initial investment made by the airline investors.

Costs will play a major role. He says the search for synergies "doesn't necessarily mean reducing staff numbers". Many of the 200 posts at the London call centres are new jobs, he adds, with a total of 700 employees planned worldwide. Plans are "fairly advanced" to bring other operations under the same roof. Reservation operations are merging in third countries but it is unclear when and how the existing reservations offices will be integrated into QCCC.

But Pattison stresses that QCCC will be more than reservations and passive call answering. He says the company will also engage in active marketing, taking advantage of having sales information from 10 airlines "on one system". This will act as an interface with the partners' own computer reservations systems. "Telemarketing can be also done from these centres," says Pattison, adding that when there is a public holiday in one country, staff with the relevant language skills can be redeployed to seek new business.

Qualiflyer claims that QCCC puts it well ahead of the competition. Pattison, formerly at Lufthansa, says the Star Alliance has made attempts at merged sales, but at their Dublin call centre United and Lufthansa did not link their CRS. There was no cross-utilisation of staff and employees even sat at desks on different floors. New customer services, such as helping to trace lost baggage, could also join.

QCCC is just part of the initiatives emerging from Qualiflyer. A joint venture company, Qualiflyer Loyalty, has been set up to manage the group's frequent-flier programme. Further customer-orientated joint ventures are in train, covering customer service activities at airports.

But if Qualiflyer is currently leading the way towards seamless selling, then developments at rival alliances - Star among them - suggest that it may not have that lead for long.

Source: Airline Business