Several companies have cut off Aeroflot from their booking platforms, essentially blocking it from selling tickets. But they could do worse.
Like everything else, aviation travel has embraced the internet age. In the old days, if we wanted to fly somewhere we had to go to a travel agent. We would discuss what we had in mind (work or holiday), chat about options (“if you liked your holiday there, you could also like…”) and then the agent would focus on the computer.
After poking through the booking systems of XYZ airlines, we’d weigh up our options. Whether we tried booking our tickets with British Airways, American or Aeroflot, the process was the same. One airline would offer lower rates, but at less convenient dates. Another was the opposite. More calls, coordinating hotel bookings and friends’ plans… you get the idea. It all happened at the travel agent’s office.
Today things are completely different. But at a very fundamental level, they are exactly the same. The friendly travel agent used the company computer to connect to someone like Sabre. Its network was called the Global Distribution System (GDS). It has evolved tremendously over time. And instead of a few tens of thousands of travel agents, today tens of millions of us connect on it, to book flights.
The Companies Behind The Airlines
You may not recognize names like Sabre, Amadeus or Travelport. But these are the companies that airlines, agents and online ticket price comparison sites use. And on Thursday the 3rd of March, Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport all terminated their agreements with Aeroflot, essentially stopping it from selling tickets. This is blocking the airline from the world’s ticket market, even from countries with no sanctions.
Sean Menke, CEO of Sabre, made this statement regarding Aeroflot and its services – including selling tickets:
“Sabre has been monitoring the evolving situation in Ukraine with increasing concern. From the beginning, our primary focus has been the safety of our team members in the impacted region, as well as doing our part to support the much-needed relief efforts.
“We are taking a stand against this military conflict. We are complying, and will continue to comply, with sanctions imposed against Russia. In addition, today we announced that Sabre has terminated its distribution agreement with Aeroflot, removing its content from our GDS.”
Many people perhaps don’t immediately realize how monumental the task of selling tickets is, for an airline like Aeroflot. At the moment, the airline has 184 aircraft in its fleet, of which it is actively using 149. Like all airlines, it has to announce a flight schedule many months in advance. Selling tickets, and figuring out what price to sell these tickets for, is one side of this riddle. Each sale reduces the remaining number of empty seats on each flight. And that changes follow-up prices.
Aeroflot, Tickets And Operations
With each aircraft making multiple flights per day, Aeroflot has to track millions of open tickets and seat prices over several months. This isn’t a task that this or any other airline could simply replace overnight. The actions of Sabre can literally bring the airline to a standstill, for weeks or months. Sabre is based in the United States. And obviously, the company is responding to sanctions that the US imposed on Russia, over its attack on Ukraine.
Amadeus is another company like Sabre, that hosts S7, another Russian airline. There is also Sirena, a Russian ticketing company, that these airlines could switch to. But it could still be months before Aeroflot and others could sell tickets smoothly. And there’s another, more serious complication here. Because in addition to the Global Distribution System (GDS), Sabre and Amadeus provide an even more key service to airlines.
That’s the Passenger Service System. Very simplistically speaking, GDS is sending the airline’s prices and availability, to people trying to book tickets. But the passenger service system keeps track of existing tickets, essentially enabling Aeroflot and others to run their operations. It is the brain behind the operation of the airline.
As of this writing, Sabre and Amadeus have not terminated this service. However, they may have to do so, to comply with sanctions. But since this would essentially cripple the airlines, these companies are concerned about any retaliatory actions.
Beyond tickets, we have seen that Aeroflot and other Russian companies face immediate challenges regarding their leased aircraft fleets. And they could soon have trouble sourcing key spare parts. It will be interesting to see how the numbers of their active and stored aircraft change, in the next few days and weeks.