The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has been ruthlessly exposing fragile business models and weak balance sheets across a whole range of industries but perhaps never more so than in the travel business. In fairness, no one could have anticipated a global, government dictated total shutdown and no business models could ever be flexible enough to support such an improbable scenario. Still, it’s become clear that many travel industry companies are effectively broke and that the payments model they rely on is broken. Going forward we need a better and more sustainable approach to payments in the industry.
Most travel industry payments rely on payments cards so it’s worth starting by recapping on how most card payment models work. When a cardholder makes a payment to a merchant – either in store or, increasingly, on-line, this is routed to the merchant’s card acquirer. The acquirer has a direct relationship with the merchant in the same way that a card issuer has a direct relationship with cardholders and the acquirer will route the payment request to the relevant issuer – usually by sending the request to a payment scheme who uses the card number to identify the correct issuer. If the issuer approves the transaction then the response is routed back through the same path and the purchase completed. This is no different from any other card payment, although there are hidden complexities where the merchant is an online travel agent sourcing flights, hotels, etc from multiple underlying vendors. However, that’s a detail.