What’s “attribute based” shopping? Hint: it’s not going to make travel cheaper

The latest cutting-edge idea from the minds of Sabre Travel Network is something called Attribute Based Shopping. The electronic reservations system unveiled it yesterday at the PhoCusWright Travel Innovation Summit in Los Angeles. But it isn’t necessarily good news for travelers.

Sabre claims it will help “travel agents and consumers navigate the plethora of travel content available today, as airlines around the world continue to bundle and unbundle their product and service offerings.”

Greg Webb, chief marketing officer for Sabre said, “This will make it easier for the shopper to identify and select the best travel options, fully considering the optional charges that are increasingly in vogue in the marketplace.”

Translation: this new software, which is expected to be available in 2009, will allow travelers to include optional fees for seats, baggage, meals, and airport lounge access in their ticket price, and pay for it all up front. Presumably it may also be easier for travel agents to add their service fees to the ticket.

The good news is that it will certainly make record keeping easier, if travelers just have one receipt for everything, instead of several different ones for the ticket, the baggage charge, the meals and maybe an aisle seat. And it will eliminate the problem of buying tickets for say, a college student who might not have cash with them when flying home.

Plus, it’s always nice to know the total cost of something up front.

Now the bad news: If a traveler prepays all these extras, and cancels or changes a flight, that’s presumably more money the airline keeps. Or at least it will mean a major hassle talking to their refund department.

Similarly, what happens with a canceled flight, or when a traveler is sent to another airline? Or when an equipment change means a lost seat assignment? Or simply when a prepaid meal is not boarded? In the old days of free meals, anyone who traveled at all frequently heard the “Sorry, we don’t have your meal” refrain. I often heard “Your travel agent must not have ordered it,” and I AM my own travel agent.

And as frequent fliers have learned, to their chagrin, once an airline figures out a new revenue source, and gets travelers used to it, the cost of those extras just keeps creeping up. If it is easier to pay for extras, it is easier to charge for extras.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that higher priced tickets are better than not being able to fly at all if more airlines go out of business. But it would be nice if just once with one of these “improvements,” the airlines simply announced, “Hey we found a new way to charge more for things that were formerly free.”