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Checking In With the Debit Memo Working Group

The Debit Memo Working Group (DMWG) continues its initiative unifying the travel industry, simplifying processes and forging new solutions.

Stakeholders from throughout the travel industry, including representatives from airlines, travel agencies, system providers and key stakeholder organizations, make up the DMWG, which is facilitated by ARC. The mission of the group is to analyze issues related to debit memos, and ultimately reduce the volume of debit memos in the travel industry. What started out as a 25-member team in 2013 has grown to over 80 participants from a wide population of the travel industry impacted by memos.

The DMWG meets in person twice a year, with regular teleconference sessions. The following updates reflect the group’s ongoing work.

In October, the DMWG met in person prior to ARC’s annual TravelConnect conference in Washington, D.C., to focus on the key initiatives identified by the group: addressing fare filing issues, establishing a set of debit memo best practices, and continuing the mapping of airlines’ existing debit memo reasons to the new standardized reason codes.

Standardized Debit Memo Reason Codes

After months of research and mapping, ARC launched standardized debit memo reason codes in its most recent version of Memo Analyzer this January.

Nine major carriers are currently mapped, including Air France, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue Airways, Lufthansa, United Airlines, British Airways, Condor and Scandinavian Airlines. Twenty more are set to be added by the end of the third quarter of 2017.

The mapping of standardized reason codes brings clarity and organization to the industry. The mapping of standardized reason codes brings clarity and organization to the industry, allowing carriers and agencies to better communicate when identifying and resolving debit memo-related issues.

“The DMWG overwhelmingly identified the need to establish debit memo best practices,” said Shelly Younger, ARC’s manager of settlement services.

“Debit memos are complicated enough as is. Anything that can be done to simplify and expedite the resolution of memos is a win for everyone.”

Optimizing Fare Filing

The ultimate goal of the DMWG is to reduce debit memos, and part of this work involves identifying the top ways that debit memos tend to occur. While there are no easy answers when it comes to debit memos, the DMWG is taking a detailed look at fare filing, and the circumstances that most often lead to debit memos. This year, the group is focusing on three key fare filing issues: free text, manually priced tickets and unclear fare rules.

A free-text field under ATPCO’s Category 16 allows airlines to manually add rules and restrictions to a fare. While the category was originally intended to provide flexibility, it often results in debit memos because the GDS auto-pricing tools—which agents often depend on—cannot read free text.

Agents have two options when it comes to ticket fares with free text. The first option is to manually review the free text in Category 16 before issuing every ticket. If the agent finds contradictions or confusion between the fare rules filed by the airline and the free-text rules filed in Category 16, the agent can do their best to determine the correct fare and manually issue the ticket. However, this fare will not be covered by the GDS guaranty, and manual calculations create room for error. Alternatively, agents can choose to rely on GDS auto-pricing tools, potentially overlooking any rules filed as part of Category 16, which potentially results in debit memos.

Agencies generally prefer to use a GDS auto-pricing tool where possible: Overall, these tools result in fewer calculation errors, and fewer debit memos. In addition to increasing accuracy, these tools save agents time that they would otherwise spend on review and phone calls to both airlines and GDSs. Additionally, GDS auto-pricing tools ensure that a ticket is covered by GDS guaranty.

The DMWG is working to examine this free-text issue and reduce the need for airlines to add free text in Category 16, which should decrease debit memos.

“Debit memos are complicated enough as is. Anything that can be done to simplify and expedite the resolution of memos is a win for everyone.” - Shelly Younger

The DMWG is also exploring manually priced fares, especially those that include a ticket designator, which changes the status of a ticket from “auto-priced” to “manually priced.” This results in a similar issue to free text, as the GDSs do not offer a fare guaranty for manually priced tickets.

Finally, there are many fare rules that are unclear, either because they are contradictory, lengthy or confusing in their language. The group is evaluating these fare rules to bring more clarity to the process, with the hope of increasing accuracy for travel agencies.

Establishing Best Practices

The Debit Memo Working Group is also advancing industry-wide best practices surrounding the debit memo process. The topics include the following:

  • Debit Memo Issuance: Evaluating time frames between the transaction and the issuance of the debit memo. The current suggestion is within 90 days, with a few exceptions such as credit card chargebacks and fraud.
  • Debit Memo Response: The group is evaluating timeframes for debit memo open, review, dispute and airline/GDS response.
  • Debit Memo Policy Library: Encourages carriers to develop an agency debit memo (ADM) policy library accessible to the agency community. Agents can access a carrier’s online debit memo policies directly from ARC Memo Manager, which provides a central location to reference carriers’ policies.
  • Pre-Chargeback Communication: Explores creating a new type of notification in ARC Memo Manager that will notify agents about pending chargeback inquiries. This would provide agents more time to respond to potential chargebacks.
  • Efficient Contract Communication: The Debit Memo Working Group suggests a minimum two weeks’ notice for carriers to communicate contract effective dates and distribution dates.
  • Auto-Price Tools: The group is working to establish guidelines around travel agencies’ use of auto-price tools.
  • Training: The group is exploring a more efficient way to source GDS, ARC and IATA training, including reservations, fare rules and pricing, passenger name records (PNRs) and more.

To better define recommended best practices prior to the next gathering of the Debit Memo Working Group in May, travel agencies, carriers and GDSs are meeting as individual groups to discuss shared experiences, processes and concerns. Both groups will develop a draft of proposed best practices for review at the May meeting. A travel agency session took place on February 23, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. The carrier session took place on March 31, 2017, in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the GDSs will meet via conference call on April 24, 2017.

New Carriers and Agencies

The DMWG experienced a growth spurt since its last in-person meeting in October 2016. From the agency and corporate travel department communities, it welcomes the following members:

From the carrier community, the DMWG welcomes Air Canada, British Airways, Emirates, Qatar Airways and WestJet.

This brings the DMWG to 26 agencies, 16 carriers, three GDSs and three industry partners.

Next Steps

The next in-person session of the Debit Memo Working Group will be held May 8-9, 2017, in Washington, D.C. “There are some big challenges ahead, but I know the DMWG participants are up to the challenge,” said Younger. “We look forward to advancing the work that has been completed from the individual carrier, agent and GDS sessions over the past few weeks. In collaboration with IATA’s DMWG, we continue to tackle several complex fare filing issues. The ARC team will update the DMWG on the mapping effort on the standard debit memo reason codes. So we definitely have enough to keep us busy.”

For more information on the Debit Memo Working Group, please contact Shelly Younger (syounger@arccorp.com).