CODES & CLASSES & COMPUTERS, OH MY!
By Joe Brancatelli
June 26, 2008 -- OpenSkies, British Airways' boutique airline, has been flying for exactly a week and it already has an existential crisis on its hands.
As you've probably heard, OpenSkies flies a Boeing 757 between New York/Kennedy and Paris/Orly. The in-flight configuration is unique: 24 of BA's first-generation business-class seats that convert into 73-inch, lie-flat beds; 30 coach chairs down the back; and 28 seats in the middle of the plane. The middle cabin is laid out 2x2. Each chair has its own universal power receptacle. The chairs recline 140 degrees and there is 52 inches of legroom.
And there's the crisis. OpenSkies' middle cabin has an uninspired, made-up name, prem+. The seat comfort and in-flight perks--good meals, nice booze and personal entertainment systems--are thisclose to business class. The introductory fare, $1,540 roundtrip with a 7-day advance purchase, costs like coach. And the computerized booking code, W, is what British Airways and most other airlines now apply to their slightly-better-than-coach "premium economy" cabins.
But for Chris Vukelich, vice president of distribution and e-commerce for OpenSkies, there's no time for existential musings. He's got to sell the airline's 82 daily seats each way between New York and Paris and he knows what matters: It's the letter codes in the so-called GDS computers that drive the booking decisions of most travel agents, corporate travel departments and even some individual flyers.
"You can call a cabin or a service anything you want," Vukelich told me this afternoon before ducking into a meeting in San Francisco. "But it's all about how these things show up in the GDS. If it carries an F [for first class] code, there are people whose travel policies forbid it. If it carries a C or J [business-class codes], people whose policies forbid business-class travel can't book it. It's not a perfect system, but it's what we have and what new carriers have to fit into."
I listen when Vukelich talks because he actually makes incomprehensible travel jargon understandable to common, English-speaking travelers like us. I've also known him for a long time and interviewed him as he moved from airlines (TWA and BA) to hotels (Hilton, Ciga and Swissotel) to tour operators to banks to GDS systems and now back to airlines. When he took the OpenSkies gig, I realized I could browbeat him into giving us a little background on the intricacies and importance of airline codes.
A couple of weeks ago, when OpenSkies was ramping up and no one had seen the plane or in-flight cabins, I told Vukelich that I was most interested in this middle cabin. The coach was pedestrian--after all, we live 3x3 seating and 31 inches of legroom all the time--and OpenSkies' business cabin (called "biz") was a known commodity with those familiar BA beds. But this prem+ class was clearly a new animal altogether.
"The [prem+] product we're offering is what a lot of airlines sell as business class," he told me. "In fact, it's what L'Avion is selling in its code-share with us."
In case you hadn't heard, L'Avion, the all-business-class airline that flies between Newark and Orly, puts its code on OpenSkies' Kennedy-Orly flight. When you book OpenSkies flights through L'Avion, you're booking prem+, which is extraordinarily close to what L'Avion offers on its own 90-seat Boeing 757s.
So if it's comparable to business class and is actually being sold, figuratively and literally, as a business class, why had Vukelich dubbed it W, the code BA uses for World Traveller Plus? World Traveler Plus is nice enough (38 inches of seat pitch and some extra perks for a few hundred dollars more than standard coach on transatlantic flights), but it isn't a patch on prem+.
"The cabin we're selling in the middle doesn't exist anywhere else. If you want to fit into the existing GDS systems, you have to adapt. I couldn't just create a new letter for a new class," he explained. "Besides, we're a flyspeck in the global BA world. If I wanted to code share with BA, I needed to match up. So W was the only logical choice."
Was code-sharing with BA so important that OpenSkies had to sell its middle cabin with the same W code as the much less lavish World Traveler Plus? Vukelich, who is proud of OpenSkies and tickled that he snagged the letters EC as the airline's two-letter identifier, insisted that putting the letters BA on OpenSkies' flights catapulted it into a different world. As much as 50 percent of the airline's initial traffic will be coming as bookings through BA, he explained.
(And if you're keeping score at home, that means you can book a seat on OpenSkies as EC, the airline's own code; BA, the two-letter designator of British Airways; or A0, the L'Avion code.)
Coded out? Confused? No surprise. It gets worse, since Vukelich explains there are two kinds of codes used by GDS systems: codes for service classes and codes used for booking classes.
The "service class" codes are familiar to us: F means first and Y means coach (although BA uses M). When business class was created in the late 1970s, the industry began to splinter. Most international carriers adopted C, drawn from the fact that Pan Am called its business cabin Clipper Class. But BA and some others adopted C for their short-haul business class. They then created J for international business class. And somewhere along the line, some business classes also picked up the P code. There have been some others, too. The single class on Concorde, the defunct supersonic aircraft flown by BA and Air France, was coded R. The old one-class Eastern Air Shuttle and some of its imitators in the East Coast Corridor used U. (The booking-class codes are used to identify fare categories; most start with the letter of the service cabin and then a string of letters to signal restrictions and other rules.)
While this system might work for computers and helps a fractious airline world keep its cabins straight, a single letter doesn't adequately describe the quality of the product that you'd booking.
Shortly after deregulation, for instance, a start-up Hawaiian carrier called MidPacific picked up some aging Japanese turboprops. The YS-11s were small and configured 2x2 with narrow chairs. MidPac turned a product negative into a computerized positive and called its cabin F on the theory that 2x2 seating was first class. No matter that the incumbent carriers, Hawaiian and Aloha, were offering more spacious seats in their Y-coded coach cabins. When Eos Airlines launched in 2005, the all-business-class carrier chose the defunct Concorde R code for its single class of 48 beds. It didn't help and Eos went the way of Concorde earlier this year.
Think about the wide variety of seats, beds and levels of service you see in business class. No matter how different, business classes are all coded C, J or P. In other words, US Airways' tatty transatlantic business-class, American's heavily criticized new business class seat and Continental's admired cradle-seated business class all share the same code as Singapore Airlines' new 30-inch-wide business-class beds. Delta Air Lines' myriad of up front configurations, which range from old cradle seats to new cradle seats to beds, are all identified with the same code.
"It's imperfect," Vukelich admitted. "My middle cabin is going to deliver a lot more than people expect when they book W. What I really have is a business-class bed and a business-class seat. No one on the planet has that. But in the [GDS booking systems] I've got a J class and a W class. That's what bookers see."
Like I said, a real existential crisis.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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