If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

That may have been the prevailing logic at one time with the travel industry’s EDIFACT messaging system. But in recent years, the limitations of a legacy system in a web-based world have become increasingly apparent. Thus we’ve seen development of the XML-based New Distribution Capabilities standard, which since its first steps of implementation in 2015 has seen growing levels of usage.

As this transition occurs, long-standing GDS relationships to corporate travel programs are shifting in new directions. With processes becoming more like retail travel buying, travel executives face both opportunities and challenges in leveraging this new way of buying.

Air Travel

“As NDC transactions have the capability of a tremendous amount of data in a usable format, we see that NDC will enable new opportunities for all parties,” says Graham Wareham, head of NDC and partnerships at ATPCO (Airline Tariff Publishing Company). “It’s still early and not yet clear how this will impact things like data acquisition, analytics, and setting and negotiation of fares between the airlines, TMCs, and corporations. But increasing NDC impact in these areas seems inevitable.

Positive Directions 
One plus is that buyers will have access to additional price points that will enable closer comparisons between airlines in times of peak demand, says Jason Toothman, EGM–global air distribution, Flight Centre Travel Group. Also at hand will be the ability to book extra products through a TMC that were previously only available through the airline direct website. “Because airlines will be in a better position to retail their products, buyers will have a greater opportunity to collaborate on innovative new service solutions.”

Simon Ferguson, president and managing director, Travelport Americas, cites a number of changes that will come as a result of the type of content airlines decide to utilize via NDC. Examples include the airlines’ experimentation with dynamic pricing and with personalized fares and bundles.

“It’s likely there will be some change to TMC/travel agent workflow,” he says, “as NDC provides for ticketing from the airline’s own merchandizing platform, and the assembly of the ‘offer’ from this system as opposed to the GDS.”

It’s a misconception is that NDC isn’t capable of servicing, says Neil Geurin, director of distribution strategy for American Airlines. He says the reality is that full NDC integrations will potentially offer even more servicing support than what is available in traditional channels now via improvements such as integrated waivers and favors.

“A number of servicing elements are ready to go a now via NDC, with any outstanding needs coming soon,” he says. “American remains a leader in this space and is one of the few IATA Level Four certified airlines, which indicates we’ve developed servicing capabilities.”

A recent development is the introduction of NDC Matchmaker from IATA. Premiered at the GBTA 2019 convention, the web-based tool enables airlines, travel sellers and content aggregators to search, compare and connect with NDC partners. It’s designed to address the needs of travel buyers while supporting the showcasing of companies through a user-friendly tool.

According to IATA, the tool already includes more than 80 NDC connections between airlines and travel seller partners. Participants can display their NDC content and partnerships which can be searched by category (as airlines/sellers/aggregators), by type of products and services available, or by country.

Data Growing Pains 
While real progress has been made, everything may not go smoothly with a more complete transition to NDC. Data will be a key pain point for agencies and buyers at the outset, Toothman says.

A major factor is that most of the focus of NDC has been on the front end – shopping, booking, fulfilment – and less on the back end and servicing capabilities offered by airlines and technology providers. But data reporting and analytics are all critical functions performed by TMCs for their corporate clients, and solving the conundrum in this area is going to be paramount to a successful implementation of NDC across a company’s or TMC’s portfolio.

“Time will tell what players step up to create reporting tools and provide analytics that help drive decision making on the buy side,” he says  “But it will definitely be a challenge and opportunity with the early stages of NDC.”

Erik Magnuson, vice president, air distribution capabilities for CWT, makes a case for moving slowly. “While we support IATA’s concept of NDC, and continue to work with all parties to further its use for improved airline distribution, product differentiation and customer experience, we are looking at the wider field of play here,” he says.  That includes building a dedicated team to deliver and support all innovation and development in the future distribution of airfares and content to CWT customers’ travelers.

“To our thinking, GDSs at this time provide the best technology and content platform available to give the traveler the best user experience and operating efficiency,” he says. CWT continues to have concerns around the concept of bookings made through a non-GDS Direct Connect (DC) model. The prospect of content fragmentation, limited price-comparison ability, increased response times, reduced efficiency (thereby increased cost), and degraded user experience seem to Magnuson a technology step backwards.

As a business-to-business-for-employees (B2B4E) travel management platform, CWT is focused on providing value added services for its customers’ travelers, he says.  “So we support things that directly benefit them, such as easy price comparison capabilities, consumer-grade user experiences, instant response times, among others.”

Ferguson says it’s important to realize that the entire airline world isn’t moving to NDC. “Some airlines will adopt NDC for some fare classes/products/distribution offerings, but we are liable to see NDC co-existing with traditional ATPC fare-filing for some years to come.” He notes that major airlines have been clear that 2019 is ‘the year of the plumbing’ with mainstream adoption starting in 2020, so a gradual transition to an NDC world should be expected.

Timing aside, Ferguson notes that airlines are looking eagerly toward NDC as a way to better offer their seats and ancillaries in a way they haven't been able to through traditional distribution channels.

“Within the corporate travel world this could have benefits,’ he says. “But it needs to be balanced with business travelers’ desire for frictionless experiences, and the corporation’s need to maintain adherence to policy.” In seeking such a balance, he says, corporate buyers should talk to airline partners and TMCs and ensure that the balance of deployment of NDC vs experience and workflow management for travelers is maintained.

To leverage what’s turning out to be a new way of buying, Stratford advises finding a travel management company that provides anytime access to trip information and tools. Such information should be available from any connected device so travelers can plan, book and access trip details through a native app or a web browser.

Ideally, that will include support by systems that deliver content efficiently and drive the data from content transactions into the platforms used by clients to provide seamless service, support and enhanced duty of care.  In BCD’s case, the heart of that effort is a content hub with a sophisticated client-based configuration engine that applies normalization, policy, artificial intelligence and rules that deliver content program to customers.

Going forward, Stratford says the core processes involved in NDC shopping, booking and payment require extensive development, customization and integration of any airlines’ NDC APIs before customers can connect to them.

“As more airlines work toward branded fares and unique offers, transparency and level detail in the data transmission will be critical to ensure our clients are able to accurately analyze what is being purchased in order to properly benchmark,” she says.

All this means that while in the long run NDC is likely to become the airline content distribution standard, it may not happen as soon as some would like. “NDC is here to stay and we are happy to see that the GDS’s have embraced NDC and are working towards viable solutions,” Stratford says. “At the same time, this is an evolution and something that will take time.”