Do Airlines need new generic top level domains, again?

In June last year, the body that is in charge of internet domain names and addresses, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers(ICANN), made a decision to introduce a new set of generic top level domain names to the internet that will enable regions, communities, brands and other entities to apply for just about any string as a top level domain name. Top level domains are the right most characters in a domain name, i.e. the characters that are located right of the dot in the domain. For example, if you have www.cheapflights.com, the "COM" is a top level domain name.

Currently there are 22 generic top level domain names including .COM .ORG .NET .GOV .INT .AERO .MUSEUM .CAT .INFO .ASIA .NAME .TRAVEL .COOP .XXX .BIZ .PRO .EDU .JOBS .MOBI .TEL . These generic or global Top level domains are normally targeted at global audiences and not restricted to any country although in some cases, they can be sponsored and may be restricted to certain user groups or communities. For example, .AERO is a sponsored generic Top Level Domain name for the aviation community that is operated by SITA and was created for companies, organizations, associations, government agencies, and individuals in aviation-related fields. All the two letter codes(IATA airline designators) in the .aero namespace are reserved for airlines for example www.kq.aero is reserved for Kenya Airways, www.et.aero for Ethiopian Airlines, www.8u.aero for Afriqiyah Airways, www.hm.aero for Air Seychelles and so on. Some of the airlines actively using .aero domain names include Afriqiyah Airways with website hosted www.afriqiyah.aero.

 In addition, the travel industry also has another travel related domain name .TRAVEL which is targeted at travel and tourism related websites.

Many airlines however use .COM domain names to express their identities online. A look at the current airline websites shows that the vast majority of these airlines prefers hosting their primary content on .COM domain names to express their global outlook and then defensively registering hundreds of other domain names in order to ward off cybersquatters and prevent the misuse of their marks in the domain names. African airlines have been classic victims of cybersquatters. A quick look at African Airlines' domain names reveals widespread abuses of the system. For example, Kenya Airways does not own www.kenyaairways.com which has been grabbed by a cybersquatter; www.southafricanairways.com is registered and parked by cybersquatter forcing South African Airways to use www.flysaa.com; while TAAG owns www.taag.com, the domain www.taagangola.com is registered by cybersquatters and is being offered for sale at exorbitant prices; www.airuganda.com is registered and parked and offers users irrelevant PPC ads while the airline, like Kenya Airways, is forced to use a hyphenated domain name www.air-uganda.com. Normally cybersquatters will offer these domains to airlines at very high prices.

While a Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy(UDRP) exist in many domain registries to resolve disputes where a brand feels its rights have been infringed upon, the cost is quite steep. Filing a UDRP case with the World Intellectual Property Organization(WIPO) which handles most of these cases can cost upwards of $3000. In many cases, an airline finds that its trademark rights has been abused across multiple Top Level Domains or the name is registered in various forms with hyphens, with suffixes or prefixes resulting in multiple instances of abuse. In some cases, you can have as much as 30 instances of abuse of an airline's rights to a certain mark. With cost of $3000 per UDRP case, it can cost an airline as much as $100,000 to reclaim all its trademark rights in the entire domain namespace. Money that could better be spent elsewhere in upgrading the airlines' products and services, especially for the cash strapped airlines in Africa.

So in many cases the cybersquatters win and the airlines end up losing lots of money and traffic that is directed to third party websites. Airlines have an eCommerce challenge, especially in the 21st Century as business moves online, particularly in the emerging markets. Airlines will have to build more robust eCommerce friendly platforms to sell more tickets without passing through middlemen. An estimated 4% of airlines' operating costs goes towards paying online travel agencies who sell tickets on behalf of the airlines. This accounts for what's normally known as distribution costs. The online travel agencies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in building a global ticket distribution infrastructure which airlines cannot match.

While the airlines cannot eliminate these OTAs completely, they can reduce the middleman fees by selling more tickets via their websites' booking engines. To do that, they need a more robust eCommerce experience and platforms; to build this experience, they will need a Domain name system where the rights can be assured.


More protections needed in the existing domain namespace
 Currently, airlines cannot be assured of cheaper rights protection mechanisms in the existing generic Top Level domains of .COM .ORG .NET .INFO and the rest as no policy development process have been initiated by ICANN to rapidly address abuses in these domain namespaces. The costs will also remain quite steep since in many cases, the disputes are handled by international arbiters who charge very steep costs. So abuses of trademark rights will continue in these existing gTLDs unless ICANN policy development experts come up with rapid and cheaper option to address abuses in these existing domain namespaces.

New gTLDs for airlines?
The new generic Top Level domain program has been developed under a rigorous policy development process that has addressed most of the shortcomings of the existing gTLDs. Of particular importance are sunrise policies that can provide airlines an opportunity to protect their marks before the domains become available to the general public. In addition, the new generic Top level domain program has incorporated rapid suspension procedures for clear cases of abuse, cheaper dispute resolution that can cost as little as $300 and a Trademark Clearing house database that airlines can join to claim their marks and safeguard it against future abuses. But do airlines need new gTLDs? I don't think so.


Why airlines do not need new Top Level Domain names
Brand recognition: Many airlines have already built great brand recognition for their products under the existing gTLDs particularly the .COM or .AERO. Rebranding the airlines' operations under a new .airline(dotairline) new gTLD will only confuse customers already used to the existing airline.com or aiirline.aerro domain names.

Customers are not concerned about what a domain name an airline has but how easily they can access services on the website, how fast it loads, is the website trusted? Many consumers are not sophisticated enough to search an airlines services online strictly based on a TLD search, for example search site:.airlineTLD

Consumers search for an airline's services by searching on Google, Bing, Yandex or Baidu; or if they have to, they will type in the URL of the airline's domain name that they are used to and is currently existing. So introducing a new TLD adds no value to the airlines' existing brand image, recognition or ease of navigating the airlines' products on the world wide web.

Will be underutilized:  Airlines normally have a central domain name and perhaps a few country based domains for their various operations in different countries. In addition, an airline's services and products are normally hosted on various pages on the main website under the primary .COM or .AERO domain. Adding a Top Level Domain to host the airlines' various services which can be hosted on the various pages in the existing Top Level Domains is clearly a waste of the cyberspace and an unnecessary expense. Existing TLDs are adequate for the "narrow" scope of airline operations. An airline TLD that utilizes something like 50-300 domains for the airline's operations and costs over $50,000 per year to operate is a criminal waste.

Cost and requirements of operating airline Domain Name Registry: Clearly, you already have enough headache in staffing and operating your IT and eCommerce Departments. You have your digital marketing team, search engine marketing team, GDS management team, information security team, airline domain portfolio management team, hardware and software maintenance team, social media team ad infinitum. Why complicate your life by adding the complex domain registry to your IT headache which comes with its own set of hardware, software, technical specialist and admins plus annual fees to ICANN?

So far, the Scandinavian Airline(SAS) is probably the only airline that has applied for a new gTLD and it's already running into problems and is likely to face some objections along the way, an extra and unnecessary cost. For airlines, please stick to your existing TLDs or move over to .AERO if you need a domain rebranding. You can also use .TRAVEL to brand your holiday products.


Airlines: Managing the new gTLDs environment

 Given that there possibly could be over 500 new gTLDs being launched by early 2013 following the evaluation and delegation by ICANN, airlines need to present a common front via IATA or ICAO and with the help of SITA demand/negotiate permanent protections at a one off low cost or no cost at all of their trademark rights across all the new gTLDs.

It will be costly for airlines to protect their marks across over 500 new gTLDs given the losses airlines are already facing in the gloomy economic environment and the rising costs of maintaining the information systems infrastructure. I think an intervention by IATA on behalf of the airlines following the negotiations by the new gTLDs future registry operators can resolve these fears. IATA and ICAO can take advantage of the comment period from May this year and through the Government Advisory Committee to extract some assurances, pledges and concessions from new gTLD applicants.

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