At first glance there’s no secret – airlines exchange higher share for better discounts. This seems easy enough, but there are a few things going on behind the scenes that smart corporations know and will use to their advantage to secure higher savings rates. Well managed travel programs are all the same. They have strong management teams and their policies and practices are aligned with business goals and traveler service. They generate “duty of Loyalty” – employees are driven to comply with policies because they receive excellent service; their travel management team is partnered with them to achieve each travelers business goals.
Airline customers come in all shapes and sizes, but a single number cannot tell the whole story. Airlines capture a lot of data, but four numbers standout to describe a customer: 1. Yield (average revenue per seat mile); 2. Premium share (Percent of revenue above (below), the carriers fair market share (FMS)); 3. Total spend (revenue to airlines); 4. Customer concentration (Percent of traffic in markets the airline serves). This article will offer a simple scoring system corporate customers can use to determine how much leverage they may have in negotiations with their preferred airline suppliers.
Good airlines create detailed reports to measure the health and profitability of their corporate contracts. Major network carriers have 1,500 – 4,500 managed contracts in place, with another 5,000 – 30,000 agreements serviced through corporate loyalty programs (American – Business ExtrAA, United – PerksPlus, Delta – SkyBonus , Southwest – SWAbiz). Airlines would keep a close eye on trends that correlate the Net Effective Discount rates (NER) to the Yield and Revenue of a particular client. A rational and financially savvy sales team drives profitability higher by controlling NER’s across industries or clients with similar spend patterns and size. Outliers are analyzed to determine if a particular team or sales person offered higher discounts than necessary to secure preferred carrier status. Additionally, sales support and analysis teams pay attention to specific customer issues.
As an example two consumer packaged goods companies have similar travel policies and total spend might, but warrant different discount levels based on their travelers’ compliance and support for their preferred carriers. Travel managers in the same industry would be disappointed if they expect equal treatment and ignore differences beyond size and policy compliance.
Airlines use sophisticated modeling and regression analysis to determine if their programs are working as designed. They produce graphs similar to the one below to share internally and use as a framework for strategy discussions about discounts and commissions.
A simple scatter plot that contains data for the carrier’s top 100 clients might look like the graph above. The point on the far right depicts a corporate client that produced $35M, at a $.25 yield. It’s a large customer, but not an extraordinarily high yield. Notice there are several customers at or just above a $.10 yield. They are unlikley to receive industry leading discounts, but these customers can take steps to secure better discounts.
In the next graph the airline’s management team would look for a low slope angle and points clustered around the best-fit line. The slope indicates the relationship between yield and the customers’ discount levels. The lower the slope, the less sensitive to discounts higher yields are, while a high slope indicates that as yield rises, discounts are likely to increase rapidly too. Again, this is sample data, but it should give you an idea about how your program is viewed by your preferred vendors. Additionally corporations without a contract should be able to achieve a savings rate at least as high as available through a loyalty program, so I’m always amazed to see NER’s below the 5% line (a typical valuation for SkyBonus or Business ExtrAA).
Travel Managers should evaluate their program’s performance to establish realistic goals as they position their company and their Travel Management partner to launch an airline RFP. At this point, trust and respect between your team and the account managers and sales people at each supplier are vital for a smooth negotiation, but an honest appraisal can jumpstart the process and show you areas where your suppliers may expect work on your side to achieve your RFP goals.
Travel Managers who understand the airlines point of view and have strong influence over the qualities that matter will be rewarded.
Here’s a model I developed to determine how much leverage you have as you begin the negotiation process.
Yield: Begin here. More than $.25 give your program two points. You have a travel policy that likely includes a healthy combination of domestic first class, some International flights (in business class), and a decent percentage of domestic coach-class, business fares. If you achieved this primarily because your headquarters office is in Boston, and your team flies to New York, Laguardia on the shuttle, exclude that data for this exercise. And for those companies that have a combined yield below $.20, don’t try too hard with the airlines, you’re already doing a great job – your travelers buy coach, and they book at least seven days out (no points). Everybody else, between $.20 – $.25 give yourself one point.
Premium Share: This is the one that separates well-managed programs from also rans. Does your travel team have the ability to influence travelers vendor choices? If you can answer yes – you have leverage. Do you enforce contracts to do the heavy lifting or do you need constant support from vendors each time a traveler finds a lower fare online or a checked-bag disappeared? Honesty here will uncover opportunities to drive incremental savings, but more of the same if the same means high maintenance then you will have a difficult negotiation. If you’re a bank or a movie studio and you give one of the legacy carriers an unbelievable share above their Fair Share or Seat Share in the LAX<>JFK market, then you get two points. If you’re based in Atlanta Delta earns all of your business, don’t get too excited, but I would still give you two points here (we’ll address this more in Concentration). For everyone else, use your judgement.
Spend: Are you a big hitter? Does your company spend more than $1BN each year on air travel (you know who you are), than give yourself two points – you’re big enough to dictate some terms. Even if you spend >$25MM and you have a well-managed program you’re likely to have more leverage than a smaller program.
Concentration: This one is more subjective than the others, but if more than half your spend originates or ends in a fortress hub, you should score yourself lower. A company with operations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or any number of up-for-grabs cities will find that this will give you leverage to negotiate better terms with your vendors.
Here’s an example – If you combine low concentration, high premium share and high yield you will find yourself in a rare position and should expect industry leading discounts – even if you have a relatively low spend ($5MM). Carriers should fight over this business and the winners would expect to receive profitable traffic.
The graph above depicts the best customer – one that can dictate terms and may be able to include “most favored” status in parts of their contracts. Any score above five would put a corporation in an excellent position as they negotiate with vendors. Four or below leaves room for improvement, but you should distinguish between values you can control and those you cannot. Total spend is something you’re unlikley to have influence over, but premium share is.
Travel Managers have a significant influence over the premium share variable, and travel policies are yield’s biggest drivers. Before any negotiation you should determine which avenue for savings would be more effective a policy change or carrier discounts. Remember four constituents should be delighted at the end of the process: travelers, corporations, airlines, and travel management partners.