DOT mulls online fed travel service

Transportation Department officials last week asked industry for help in creating a World Wide Web site for federal travelers who want to book their trips online, saving the government money in the process.

The site, which officials hope will be online by the end of the year, would build on commercially available technology and services and would enable employees at DOT and potentially other agencies to book thousands of trips per year without having to make phone calls to travel agents.

Federal employees could use the site to check available travel options and make travel plans that are the most convenient for them or that would save the department the most money, said David Kleinberg, DOT's deputy chief financial officer.

"You can make better choices because you have the same instant information," he said.

Moving the process to the Web and taking travel agents out of the picture should save DOT close to half of the $30.84 fee it now pays for each transaction to World Travel Partners-BTI Americas, the company that handles travel plans for the department, Kleinberg said.

DOT still would pay fees to World Travel and any other travel company that the department might use, but because the Web site would minimize human involvement, DOT officials expect to pay less per transaction when its employees use the site to book flights, lodging or rental vehicles, Kleinberg said.

Kleinberg estimated that only about 2 percent of the 120,000 trips DOT's employees book each year would be handled through the site in its first year. The site then would handle more bookings as employees became accustomed to it, he said.

Other federal agencies could join DOT in the online travel-booking project. Governmentwide, civilian federal employees take an estimated 1.6 million work-related trips a year, nearly all of which are booked by phone or by fax.

DOT officials expect the site to differ little from services already available commercially—such as www.travelocity.com, operated by The Sabre Group Inc. Kleinberg said existing travel industry computer networks already are set up to book trips at the special rates that federal customers receive when they travel.

Susan May, director of the travel management division at the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service, said the DOT Web project may serve as the interface that will let customers across the federal government tap into a forthcoming GSA contract for travel agent services.

Potential bidders for the Nationwide Travel Management Services contract, which will be awarded to multiple vendors in July, already have been informed that they may be asked to offer their services through DOT's planned site, May said.

And if the DOT Web site does indeed become a window to the GSA contract, GSA will work to make sure agencies know about it. "We will make aware to our customer base all of the options that are available under our contract," May said. The contract will see an estimated $500 million in air travel sales per year, May said.

Many travel firms offer customized online travel services for large corporations or organizations. Employees at Nike Inc., Nabisco Brands Co., Procter & Gamble, and Texas Instruments Inc., for example, use the Internet Travel Network (www.itn.net) to book travel online, in accordance with each company's travel policies.

Liz Naughton, a spokeswoman for ITN, said the company is committed to submitting a proposal for the DOT Web-travel project.

But Walter Drabik, chief of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's electronic systems section and a frequent traveler to the Southwest border, is skeptical about the site's potential for success. "Somewhere along the line, you want to talk to a human being," he said. "It's just the nature of the beast."

Drabik said the practice actually may consume more time than it saves, because some federal workers arranging travel for themselves may take too much time exploring their options online—more time than a travel agent needs to examine the same options—canceling out some of the savings that the Web may bring, he said.

Moreover, in the commercial market, the use of the Web for travel is relatively small.

"It's still, at this stage, a very small percentage of total corporate booking, probably less than 1 percent," said Melissa Abernathy, a spokeswoman for American Express Corporate Services, which provides do-it-yourself online travel services for about 200 businesses. "But it's expected to increase rapidly as more companies adopt the systems and more employees are comfortable with using something new."

Corporations spent about $175 billion on travel services in 1998, according to Abernathy.

She said she was not sure whether her company would pursue business on the DOT project.

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