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Originally published March 18, 2013 at 1:07 PM | Page modified March 19, 2013 at 12:51 PM

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Flight booking needs update for customized fares, trade group urges

Old booking system must adapt to sell seat upgrades, early boarding, online drinks and more, industry says, though consumer advocates balk.

Los Angeles Times

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A trade group for the world’s airlines is pushing to modernize a decades-old booking system to help speed along the latest airline trend — the sale of customized fare packages.

Behind the effort is the International Air Transport Association, the trade group for about 240 of the world’s largest airlines. The group filed an application with the U.S. Department of Transportation last week to upgrade the computer system used by travel agents and online travel sites such as Orbitz and Travelocity.

The group wants the ability to sell you more than just a seat on a plane. Most airlines can now offer, through their own websites, customized packages that include such extras as upgraded seats, early boarding and onboard drinks.

But the trade group says that the 40-year-old computer system used by travel agents and online travel sites is so antiquated that it can only provide simple flight schedules and fares.

The proposed upgraded system would also let airlines identify you through your loyalty reward number or other information to sell you personalized deals.

“If you are an airline, you don’t know what your customer is buying until after the purchase is done,” said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the IATA, which is based in Geneva.

The existing system cannot, for example, offer the special deal from American Airlines called Choice Plus. The deal includes an economy seat, one free checked bag, a free drink, early boarding and no charge to change flights at the last minute.

American offers the deal through its own website.

Critics of the proposal worry that it will force passengers to give up personal data and make it harder for them to easily compare fares of different airlines.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocacy group for business travelers, called the proposal “nothing less than an ill-considered public and government-relations nightmare.”

Flint disagrees, saying passengers will still be able to compare fares to find the best price and are not obligated to give personal information. “This is a standard that we are putting out,” he said. “It’s up to the market to put it in use.”

The IATA hopes to begin testing the new system next month and, if all goes well, have it offered widely by 2016, Flint said.

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