The more options, the better? That looked to be the situation earlier this year with what promised to be one of the hottest topics in travel, the surge toward acceptance of New Distribution Capability. Then came COVID-19.

But while the pandemic may have slowed the revolutionary nature of this emerging standard, continued progress seems likely. As travel returns, airlines are gearing up for NDC once again, and some travel buyers are finding new value in the traveler-tailored health and safety information it may offer.

Moves made by Travelport over the past year provide an object lesson around the evolving thinking about NDC. In February, the company announced that it has achieved level 4 NDC certification as an aggregator from IATA. The certification comes as part of a phased approach by Travelport, which has been offering NDC content from a small number of partner airlines since October 2018.

Air Travel

Delivering NDC content to customers is a crucial part of Travelport’s multi-source content strategy, and this certification is the next step in recognizing its NDC capability, says Jason Toothman, head of agency sales, Americas and global accounts. The certification confirms that Travelport is among the latest providers to have achieved level 4 and is thus able to provide full offer and order management, and servicing of an NDC booking. This complements the current capabilities of voiding tickets and cancellations combined with new capabilities of modifying and exchanging tickets, as well as processing refunds.

“The biggest benefit is that customers will have access to personalized content from some carriers which should make their shopping experience easier, seeing only the types of fares they’re likely to book,” Toothman says. By working with technology providers, travel management companies will also be able to access NDC content within their familiar workflow so they can deliver enhanced offers to their customers without having to find and manage content from a number of different, potentially disparate sources.

One way to look at NDC, Toothman notes, is as an extended version of what has already been done, which is providing choice to demand-side customers through relevant, bookable content from whichever distribution method a supplier chooses. “For us it is a continuation of what we do best: providing the technology to serve the traveler better.”

Are We There Yet? 
While NDC content brings choice to customers, even before COVID it was obvious that further refinement would be needed for the standard to be more widely embraced, according to Alex Kaluzny, SVP and chief product and technology officer at Egencia.

“It’s important to note that no current NDC distribution channel offers the ability to service a booking at the level that GDS bookings can be serviced today,” he says. That means NDC needs to continue to mature and address the current gaps and complexity in delivering a high-quality customer experience.

“What we hear from customers is the need for minimal disruption to the end-to-end business travel experience,” Kaluzny says. This includes the ability for TMCs to manage cancellations and changes easily, giving travel consultants an equivalent level of offline servicing capabilities, the capability to manage travel policy and trip approval seamlessly, and to provide rich reporting data for travel managers.

Given such demands, the onset of NDC presents an opportunity for many travel organizations to rethink how they do business together, says Chuck Fischer, vice president, airline retailing and settlement at Airlines Reporting Corporation. “NDC and other omnichannel solutions intend to make life easier for both travelers and travel programs by improving the overall traveler experience, which is especially important for corporations with employees that travel frequently,” Fischer explains.

ARC introduced NDC functionality into its settlement system in early 2018, with British Airways as its first partner airline. Since then, it has been actively testing with a number of airlines, with several slated to implement NDC and conversations under way for a number of others. ARC recently announced it had completed NDC implementation with United Airlines.

“We believe that it’s time for the direct and indirect sales channels to become more connected,” Fischer says. “While NDC aims to bring more products and bundles to the indirect channel, we also want to give travel managers and TMCs more transparency into the direct channel.”

Viewing NDC as part of an omnichannel strategy to bridge the direct and indirect channels, ARC has recently announced investments in Block Skye, Traxo and nuTravel. “Leveraging the strengths of each of these companies, we’re excited to develop new solutions that complement NDC by giving travel managers and TMCs the tools that they require to enable corporate travelers to have a seamless, consistent experience regardless of the channel they use to book, purchase and service their air travel,” he adds.

Despite the unique challenges of 2020, active interest in implementing NDC or other omnichannel solutions remains. “With reduced activity in air travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines and other industry partners have had more time to weigh the benefits and evaluate an investment in the solutions,” Fischer notes. “The entire air travel ecosystem is coming together to determine how to improve the overall traveler experience while benefiting corporations’ processes in anticipation of travel recovery.” NDC and omnichannel will both play an active role in those improvements, he concludes.

Picture This 
While the pace of adoption may have slowed, that’s likely to be a temporary situation.

“NDC continues to move forward, albeit with less demand and focus from clients and travelers alike, which is understandable, given the current global situation where travel has been impacted like never before," says Erik Magnuson, CWT vice president, air distribution capabilities. He notes that news of a vaccine however can and will change this, with the spotlight on NDC steadily returning. Magnuson adds that as one of his organization’s key priorities, NDC will continue to be a focus, with CWT having worked behind the scenes throughout the pandemic, further strengthening its strategy and delivery of next-generation distribution capabilities.

From a traveler perspective, it’s important to enable the consumption of this content in a clear, compelling and efficient manner, Magnuson says. “While NDC addresses some of the elements needed to make rich content available via any channel, it doesn’t really address the challenges of displaying richer content.”

He poses a number of questions that must be addressed. How do we efficiently differentiate and retail new airline products and bundles? How do we compare airfares and bundles across airlines to assist travelers and travel counselors in making an efficient and informed decision? How do we improve the user experience using rich content, and measure the impact? As the medium itself becomes increasingly complex, how do we account for an evolving platform that includes mobile and virtual assistants?

“It’s clear that if we solve for distribution and content without display, we gain minimal to no value,” Magnuson cautions. In effect, NDC becomes a two-legged stool unless the limitations around how you actually shop for airline products, bundles, and services are addressed. This must be done in a way that satisfies not only the end user’s experience, but also airlines’ retailing opportunities, without significantly increasing the cost to operate such a system, he argues.

“We can achieve this only through an omnichannel solution that makes it easier to understand and purchase rich content across all airlines,” Magnuson says, adding that an alignment around a global standard such as ATPCO’s Next Generation Storefront or something similar is a necessary first step and offers the most efficient to approach for doing this across all channels.

According to Magnuson, CWT supports a global, collaborative approach, and considers NGS to be the best tool to navigate the road to enhanced display today. “We are encouraged by the momentum we’re building,” Magnuson says, noting that ATPCO’s NGS advisory board has already successfully created a North America standard, and is rapidly pursuing global alignment.

Much attention has been paid to NDC’s infrastructure and customer-driven content, but the benefit of solving challenges related to both are lost without the development of enhanced display that provides consumer-grade experience. “The industry needs to come together and solve this last mile,” Magnuson advises.

From a travel buyer perspective, the first step is simply understanding how to approach and analyze NDC. Next comes seeing how it fits into the travel program, and how it can be incorporated into a strategic travel policy that can be implemented and adapted. This includes recognizing the airlines’ intent to bring the products and services offered through their website to their indirect distribution channels. “NDC and airline programs are converging, and the first key area of convergence will occur with airline RFPs,” Magnuson explains.

Kaluzny emphasizes the importance of ensuring that NDC is as seamless as GDSs for booking business travel. “Our customers value comparison shopping and have a low tolerance for workarounds and disruptions in service,” he says. A commitment to consistent quality requires both airline and TMC developments to ensure that corporate travel needs, such as risk management, trip approval and travel consultant servicing, are a fundamental part of the capabilities that airlines deliver with NDC content.

“We need to remember NDC was introduced as a technology standard, something we needed as airlines operate in a modern retail environment,” Toothman says. “However, lots of airlines are taking their own approaches to implementing NDC, meaning that it isn’t really standardizing some of the complexity it was introduced to tackle.” It’s important, he notes, to ensure customers remain at the heart of all NDC implementation to avoid the risk of not making the progress the industry needs.

“NDC implementations require patience and rigorous attention to detail, but the industry has invested heavily in its success,” Fischer concludes. Looking forward to other initiatives like ONE Order, he says, NDC is the logical next step in accelerating the industry’s ability to create more traveler-centric offers and deliver a better end-to-end travel experience.

Kaluzny says that while NDC remains full of possibilities, its implementation needs to continue to mature in order to deliver on that promise. “COVID has also exposed a lot of process and technology shortcomings around the travel industry,” he says. “That means that NDC can't trade off today the frictionless experience that is even more paramount in the ‘new normal’ for potential in the future.”

The assertion that we’re all in this together may have become a cliché, but it still reflects a growing reality.
“The travel industry has come together more than it ever has during the pandemic,” Toothman concludes. “While there remains some volatility considering state and country restrictions, I think the increase in consumer confidence in travel that we’re seeing is pushing the entire industry to continue working together on vital improvements that will define ‘the new normal’ for travel.” Airlines are investing in the technology capabilities that will enable more personalization, and collectively, the industry-wide focus on better retailing and more content choice will be key components of the future of travel.