At the crux of the legal dispute between Air Canada and WestJet is a mysterious little program called the Availability Tool, favoured by Web-savvy travellers looking for travel deals. Air Canada accuses WestJet of stealing proprietary flight-load information from its internal employee website, but WestJet maintains the same info can be found by anyone with an Internet connection who has downloaded the Availability Tool software.
The author of the free software–which can be downloaded from a Norwegian university website–is a mystery. The program scours data from the Sabre airline reservation system, an online airline ticket service that connects carriers with more than 50,000 travel agents worldwide, as well as online travel websites. For instance, punch in a query for flights from Montreal to Washington, D.C., at a particular day and time, and Availability Tool will spit out the time and flight number, as well as a series of letters and numbers–meaningless to most people. But airline insiders would easily recognize the codes as detailing how many coach or business-class seats are available, and whether they are to be sold at full-fare or at a discount.
That may be useful information for travellers looking to snag a last-minute deal or seat upgrade, but it would take a lot of work to make it useful competitive information, according to John Lancaster, senior manager of operations research at Manugistics, a Rockville, Md.-based firm that does consulting for the travel, transportation and hospitality industries. “Publicly available data like this would not provide you a competitive edge,” he says. “This data would require a lot of processing, storing history and modelling to be made useful.” Maybe that is true. But ultimately it will be up to the courts to determine just how valuable the information is to both Air Canada and WestJet.