You don't have to look too closely at NDC to wonder if those letters might just as well stand for "Not Done Changing." With airlines launching new booking initiatives related to NDC – and new partnerships emerging – things remain in flux.

“There has been a lot of movement from airlines on the NDC front over the past six months,” says Michael Riegel, GM, Europe for Navan (formerly TripActions). As an example, he points to last year’s decision by American Airlines to remove more than 40 percent of content from EDIFACT channels. With moves such as this driving TMCs to reassess content sourcing strategies, Riegel acknowledges the need for flexibility in accommodating initiatives taken by airlines.

“We respect the desire by airlines to sell their content in the way they want to sell it, at the price they want to sell it. We work closely with all of our airline partners to ensure we’re bringing this content to our mutual customers in an efficient and scalable way,” Riegel says.

“Clearly airlines are starting to try and switch the game up,” notes Murray Warner, head of managed travel at Serko. “It's understandable that they're looking to reduce costs of distribution while maximizing revenue from enhanced merchandising." He explains that adoption of different distribution channels in leisure travel is higher than business travel because non-GDS distribution tends to create problems for the travel management companies’ operations model which is built around the passenger name record, or PNR. And when gaps or breaks are created in the TMC operations model, it can break elements of the corporate travel program.

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Warner identifies two approaches airlines are using to switch the market: Either the carrot (incentives) or stick (reduced access to inventory). “The jury is out as to which model is likely to have most beneficial impact to the airlines,” he says. “In general though, TMCs are not voluntarily supporting the switch as the impact can include significant operational cost or overhead to them and a hit to their supplier revenue.”

Notwithstanding the differing viewpoints that might be expected from the various players, overall progress with NDC seems substantial.

Eric Hall, director of B2B channel and TMC relations for Southwest Business, says that ideally, the industry will see more NDC adoption. “The technology is better than technology that still powers most airline bookings in the US, and we’ve seen some suppliers tacking on extra fees or removing content just to push NDC forward,” he says. He notes that Southwest continues working to find new partners that prefer its industry API, which is a key piece of its multi-channel distribution strategy.

Similarly, the view at Delta Air Lines is that NDC will help move the industry in the right direction, according to Jeff Lobl, managing director of global distribution strategy. “Delta supports NDC because it gives control back to the carriers to create the offers the end traveler sees, creating consistency across channels," he says. "We also believe NDC will unlock the ability to deliver new and customized product offerings to customers that are interested.”

At Corporate Travel Management, the shift by airlines to a focus on more NDC content is seen as a welcome development, according to Mike Kubasik, global chief technology officer. "Airlines are taking different approaches on strategy towards NDC and it is evolving with the GDSs," he says. Kubasik notes that CTM’s online booking tool, Lightning, was one of the first to embrace NDC and that efforts are ongoing to employ it in pushing the modern booking experience forward. In addition, the use of regional development teams means integrations can be tackled with the leading airlines in different parts of the world at the same time, rather than having to focus on just one or two key carriers when these shifts happen.

Strategic Priorities  
At present slightly more than one in 10 travel agent sales, either through direct connect or via an aggregator, come from NDC pipes, according to Yanik Hoyles, director of distribution at the International Air Transport Association. In addition, a number of airlines already have over 30 percent of their indirect bookings coming from NDC, with the majority of these bookings for leisure travel via online travel agents, metasearch sites and other leisure travel agents. IATA attributes this to the fact that business travel, and particularly managed travel, tends to be more complex and relies much more on capabilities such as servicing which are gradually becoming more mature in the NDC environment.
"The three Western GDSs are all fully on-board with NDC and are all working hard to address these capabilities, but they’re only just getting there," he says. "Industry engagement is high."

Hoyles points to recent moves such as Spotnana developing an advanced integration into American Airlines direct channels that supports personalized travel offers, as well as CTM's integration with the Qantas Distribution Platform (QDP), ensuring that only relevant content is shown to clients through its online booking tool. He also cites FCM Travel Solutions and parent company Flight Centre Travel Group being among the first global TMCs to gain recognition for NDC capabilities in the Airline Retailing Maturity index. Other developments have included a webinar recently hosted by Navan with the Lufthansa Group highlighting the benefits of NDC for corporate travel, and CWT's work with Amadeus on NDC bookings at scale with Singapore Airlines and Air France-KLM.

“NDC is one of the biggest changes our industry has seen in a long time, and a key strategic priority for us,” says Ken Pfaffmann, vice president of business development, Amadeus Cytric Solutions, Americas. “We’ve been working closely with IATA as well as our airline, travel agency and corporate customers since its inception to deliver NDC and make enhanced retailing a reality.”

Amadeus points out its NDC-enabled solutions are now live with 17 airlines across more than 130 countries with over 24,000 travel agencies. Its Cytric Travel solution brings NDC-sourced content online to corporate travelers from nine airlines across 90-plus countries. Key to this has been the effort to scale both the content availability and the readiness of partners so that all travel sellers now have an easy way of shopping, booking, comparing and servicing the NDC content.

Travelport also continues to support the NDC standard as a way to normalize travel content, notes Chris Ramm, vice president global enterprise partners at Travelport. “However, it seems that the actual implementation of NDC protocols by some airlines has increased complexity and fragmentation as each airline is doing its own thing,” he adds. Currently, Travelport is working closely with its airline partners to manage complexities so that for its TMC and agency customers, NDC remains loyal to its original mission to improve access to more content, offer more choice and personalization for travelers.

For its part, Travelport has been aggressive in providing retailers expanded content, including NDC content. It recently rolled out Air France-KLM NDC content in 40 countries worldwide, including all of Europe. NDC content from American Airlines is live in more than 70 countries, and with Qantas and Singapore Airlines in over 60 nations.

Ongoing Challenges
As the amount of travel content explodes and airlines offer more options and customizations for travelers, it’s becoming increasingly necessary to improve how travel content is consumed and presented to buyers, particularly travel managers and agents, Ramm says. “As an industry, we should aspire to create a marketplace that is fair, neutral and transparent,” he says. “That is why NDC was created – because there is a lack of trust in the marketplace. We support the NDC standard as a way to normalize travel content and as a result, its intent to make both comparison and personalization easier in travel retailing.”

Lobl points out there is still work to be done to ensure NDC is adopted at scale. “Displays need to be modernized to properly merchandise a greater amount of content,” he says. “New products need to be not only sold, but also able to be serviced, by the carrier or an agency partner." Too, corporate booking tools must be able to sell NDC and non-NDC in a seamless way that doesn’t interfere with agency workflows.

According to Warner, the fundamental tension between travelers wanting choice and convenience, and business travel managers wanting control and compliance, hasn't gone away. "Your travel booking tool is like the operating system of your travel program," he says. "It's where it really comes to life for travelers, so if it isn't up to scratch, they will continue to go around it and book outside of channel."

Riegel notes that one of the most important factors to take into account with new developments in this space is ensuring that the post-booking servicing capabilities of your OBT and TMC meet the needs of your travelers. "In corporate travel, plans change,” he says. "Your travelers need the ability to make changes to their travel plans quickly and efficiently."

Although it’s not the most modern technology, the GDS environment does a good job of aggregating information in one location to allow for efficient booking and servicing. "NDC still has some work to do on the servicing front, which may require new solutions and processes to meet the needs of modern corporate travelers," Riegel says.

It’s easy to get caught up in the various benefits, drawbacks and commercials of different distribution trends and challenges, Kubasik says. But ultimately it needs to work for the travel manager who’s responsible for the program and the end traveler who needs to be able to easily book, cancel or rebook their travel quickly, often while on the move.

In 2023 we will see a significant shift to NDC as airlines further develop their NDC strategies, Pfaffmann predicts. He advises travel managers who have not adopted NDC already to review the needs of their travelers and how NDC can simplify the process.

“Have a clear vision of what they want from NDC and discuss with providers how they will deliver on this promise," he says. "Think about the type of content bundles that will work for travelers." Examples include lounge access negotiations for certain routes, WiFi bundles, buying pre-assigned seats, extra carry-on luggage, and fast-track or semi-flexible tickets.

NDC should not be pursued just to check a box in your travel program, Riegel concludes. “Instead, make sure you understand what it is you are actually looking for, whether that be differentiated content, better pricing or something else,” he says. “Then, work with your TMC to take a strategic approach to solve those needs, whether that be through NDC or another solution.”