In the new airline world order of NDC, managing disruptions and trip changes tops the list of challenges for corporate travel
By Mark Rowh
Here it is more than a decade after the introduction of New Distribution Capability, and we’re still trying to assess its eventual impact. As airlines push forward with their NDC rollout, one thing seems clear: The way air travel is shopped and booked is definitely changing. But for now, the reality is that corporate travel buyers can’t be sure what to expect.
Throughout history, emerging technology has always tended to be a disruptor. Whether we're talking automating factories or exchanging data, progress is inevitably accompanied by frustration. That seems to be the case right now with New Distribution Capability (NDC), especially when it comes to serving travelers during irregular airline operations or itinerary changes. From rebooking flights to dealing with unused tickets, some real challenges are waiting to be more fully addressed.
“As with any transition, there will be disruption and a cost of change for all players,” notes Jay Richmond, senior director, global solution consulting for Amadeus. "The main challenge the industry faces today with NDC is servicing.”
Until the GDSs can support canceled flights that have been booked on an NDC fare, the resolution requires a call to the airline, notes Jason Kramer, VP, Air Solutions for Tripbam. “This creates traveler frustration or increased agency fees. We expect this to be resolved by year end but haven’t seen a date yet.”
Paige Blunt, senior manager of Direct Connect and ONE Order at ARC, points to cross-channel servicing as a continuing challenge, with each airline making independent choices on how to manage the rebooking of flights after an irregular operation.
"Regardless of the process, agencies currently don’t have the ability to see any changes the airline has made to the traveler’s ticket in their own systems," she notes. "The inability of agencies to service their customers after the airline makes that change is also a key challenge."
According to Peter Vlitas, executive vice president, partner relations, Internova Travel Group, one impact is the inability to be predictive in advance of weather events with rebooking and getting special waivers to reissue, because in NDC, the airline controls the issuing of the ticket. “We have yet to see what happens when the option the airline offers is unacceptable and the agent needs to find or build a new connection,” he says. “We will see how that will be booked and issued as the agent can no longer manipulate a ticket.”
For Amadeus, the approach is to “normalize” the standard by integrating the different versions of flows, data and servicing used by airlines to ensure that travel sellers can do the servicing in a comparable way. But with the existing differences in the way that airlines deliver content via NDC, rebooking flights is an area that requires more standardization.
"Until there is more standardization and unification, agencies may need to adopt different processes for rebooking," Richmond says. "This might include needing to contact the airline call center, resulting in a degradation of agency efficiency."
The airlines have their own considerations, according to Eric Hall, director of B2B channel and TMC relations for Southwest Airlines. He points out that tickets booked via GDS channels that use the Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce, and Transport, or EDIFACT, are more challenging for airline systems to manage during any sort of exchange or modification, including those events tied to irregular operations. “Traditionally there have been some gaps for customers whose ticket was issued via legacy GDS channels in regard to using an airline’s self-service options, such as the airline’s website or mobile app,” he says. “NDC changes the ticketing part of the equation, allowing airlines to more seamlessly service third party bookings made via NDC or other API platforms.”
At the same time, Blunt affirms that agency partners have reported issues servicing travelers during irregular operations when they were ticketed with NDC fares. Nevertheless, she sees a less problematic future. "As aggregator tools become more robust and new capabilities for cross-channel servicing within them are developed, travelers should have a more seamless travel journey regardless of booking channel," Blunt notes.
Curiouser & Curiouser In the meanwhile, complexity remains the name of the game. “Rebooking flights is a complex issue due to the complexity of rules around fare class, travel date restrictions, airline policies, country-specific rules, and restrictions on exchanging NDC tickets for GDS and vice versa,” says Tom Rigby, SVP, commercial for Navan. He notes that as one of the first TMCs to integrate NDC, his company has built an AI-centric chat platform that can parse these complicated rules to offer travelers a seamless experience to handle their flight exchanges. The ultimate goal is to create a user experience that’s easy and efficient regardless of the provider being NDC or GDS.
A no-hassles user experience certainly isn’t the case with unused tickets. “Tracking and applying unused tickets in general is cumbersome for buyers and their TMC,” Rigby says. “This is a downstream issue yet to be resolved.” When it comes to unused tickets, Kyle Moore, global head of customer strategy at Travelport, says that almost all airlines are not yet ready. He notes that one airline, Qantas, can support the reuse of an unused ticket today, and that is only for a ticket that was previously issued via NDC to another ticket that can be issued via NDC.
“While this is a really important step in the right direction, and we have had this implemented with Qantas for about a year, it’s still very limited,” Moore says. He adds that another airline has indicated the intent to support the reuse of a ticket that was originally created via traditional EDIFACT to an NDC ticket, but that option is not yet ready. “So while everyone knows that this is critical,” Moore says, “it’s broadly unavailable at this time.
The API solution offered by Southwest Airlines, while not currently built on NDC standards, is able to help customers and travel arrangers more efficiently confirm flight credit balances and use open flight credits as a form of payment for new reservations, according to Hall. He reports that Southwest has been using API technology to book and service reservations since 2010, and doesn’t have concerns related to rebooking flights via NDC or other API platforms. “We are currently working to build out enhancements with our application interfacing program strategy tied to providing more near-real alerts and reports for managing available funds,” he says.
Meeting the Challenges Despite the problems, Vlitas feels that TMCs will be able to handle disruptions. “We have already created workflows with as many possibilities as we have seen in the past,” he says. “However, many require agent intervention and/or airline sales support, which at present is under a lot of pressure.” His advice is to have your TMC offer and enable them to service NDC while starting to recreate your travel policy to take into account personalized offers, bundled fares and lack of transparency on fares and availability.
Kramer notes that buyers have a wealth of resources for communicating with travelers, and even a simple FAQ on the impact of NDC and servicing will serve to benefit travelers. “What will be interesting is how this evolves,” he says. “If NDC fares on airline websites are consistently lower than fares through the TMC, how will travelers and buyers react? The potential exists that it could look much like hotel bookings with 40 percent leakage around the TMC/OBT channel.”
Hall advises arming your travel team with the knowledge of how best to use airline self-service capabilities, while also following policies aligned with travel management partners. This includes making sure your airline and TMC partners explain how NDC technology affects the ability to manage exchange situations. “NDC changes certain aspects of the ticket life-cycle work for travel agencies and airlines and it’s vital you understand how it works,” he says.
It’s up to travel managers and TMCs to find a way to offer corporate travelers a new and better shopping experience, Richmond says. Access to airlines’ relevant products, fares and bundles will be needed, along with more detailed and richer visual information for a better comparison between all the different available airline offerings. “This is what NDC offers,” he says. “Corporations and TMCs that are ready for the NDC ride will likely soar above the competition.”