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Gov't weighs Web for travel plans

The federal government is working on a plan to move its travel arrangements online, an initiative that it estimates could save taxpayers up to $2 billion.

The federal government is working on a plan to move its travel arrangements online, an initiative that it estimates could save taxpayers up to $2 billion.

The government is looking at online travel planning for the same reasons many corporations have adopted it: it's faster, cheaper and allows managers to keep better track of their employees' travel plans.

"The corporate environment has had tremendous success in adopting online travel. They've had tremendous savings opportunities as a result of doing that," said Tim Burke, project manager at the General Services Administration (GSA) who noted that the rise in interest in online travel has come alongside a rise in travel agency fees.

The eTravel Initiative, part of President Bush's 24-step eGovernment agenda, calls for the creation of a front-end reservation and planning system by the end of this year, an authorization and voucher solution by June 2003, and a complete end-to-end solution that ties into back-end systems like payroll and accounting by December 2003.

So far few government agencies have ventured online with their travel plans. Burke estimated that less than 2 percent of travel bookings are done online in the federal government today. A few agencies have gotten more than their feet wet however. For instance, the National Credit Union Administration conducts about 60 percent of its travel business online, he said.

"They're a small agency but a majority of their representatives are road warriors," he said. "It's the next best thing since sliced bread they've found."

Henry Harteveldt, senior analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco, said it's about time the government started looking at online travel, considering that about 20 percent of all business travelers handle their travel plans online.

"Companies like Texas Instruments have been using online booking engines since 1997," Harteveldt said. "Where has the government been? They should have at least been more aggressive in testing these systems."

The GSA estimates that moving travel planning and procurement online for the civilian arm of the government could save as much as $2 billion over the next 10 years.

The technical details are still being worked out, Burke said, adding that he expects to issue a request for proposals by August. The planners haven't decided yet whether they will work on developing a single application that will be used by multiple agencies, or setting up a series of criteria and requirements that multiple vendors could fulfill.

"Do I think we'll have single vendor that meets all needs across federal space? No. But we do think by requiring it to be common there will be fewer vendors than today providing disparate services," he said.

Moving government travel bookings online isn't as easy as simply providing links to online travel agencies or Web sites, since a host of federal rules and regulations govern travel plans of federal employees.

Currently, employees need to go to a Travel Management System (TMS), which traditionally has been a travel agency contracted to work with the government, and trained in federal travel regulations. They act as "traffic cops," ensuring compliance with the rules, Burke said.

Going online would allow the government to build the rules into the travel system, but employees would still have to go back to their TMS for final approval, he said. So it's likely agencies will still play some role in the process. Agencies will also likely be used to handle support and to deal with complex travel situations, he said.

But moving the process to the Web should sharply cut down the agency fees, Harteveldt said. The average agency fee drops by one-third to one-half when travelers use the Internet instead of phoning in travel requests, he said.