Comment: Travelport seeks a game-changer before Iata’s NDC can rip up the rule book

It’s usual that big announcements of ‘revolutionary’ technological developments from the GDSs are met with a degree of cynicism.

The three major technology firms that are at the heart of the travel industry attract their fare share of criticism when it comes to their record on implementation and roll out of the new technology that will shape the sector’s future.

Indeed, Travelport, Sabre Travel Network and Amadeus are themselves deeply cynical about each other’s claims made publically about their tech, but all are acutely aware of the need to innovate and are committing resource to doing just that.

Outside of the GDS hothouse ‘flashy’ new tech solutions designed to tempt agents off their green screens and on to ‘more user friendly’ GUI (Graphical User Interface) platforms barely make the ‘innovationometer’ twitch.

And so this week’s announcement by Travelport that its new air merchandising platform has combined the best of direct connect API airline technology with the traditional GDS industry standard-based approach into one selling screen will no doubt have been seen in a similar light, particularly by those observers who prefer their innovations to come from disruptive start-ups.

But while the technological achievement itself may not have immediately set the sector’s most bleeding edge technologists all a quiver the timing and the implications for the industry do bear a closer look at.

What the move by Travelport represents (and it’s something its three rivals are expected to follow, in fact, success may depend on just that) is a subtle change of tack by the GDSs.

Although the traditional approach of applying ATPCO distribution standards to air product has over the years allowed a great deal of functionality it is hugely complex, inflexible and restricting, as Travelport’s Ian Hayward, a former airline man, explained.

“When I was just trying to do something slightly different, whether it was trying to compete with low-cost carriers and perhaps some fares were not as opaque as I would have liked or doing something special on a route, my hands were tied,” he said.

So instead of creating the playing field and applying the rules what this week’s announcement represents is the creation of a playing field on which the players – the airlines – have a choice of rules by which to play.

They can take greater ownership of the game but the only stipulation is that they don’t just pick up the ball and run home with it.

The GDS, then, becomes much more of an enabler, passing the onus for how the game is run onto the airlines.

It accords with the great travel industry mantra of our time: “we must give the customer what he wants so he can book how he wants, when he wants and through whatever channel and on whatever device”.

This promises a neat turning of the tables in the technological arms race because while some airlines have often been keen to blame a lack of progress on the GDSs (particularly at content deal renewal time) it’s now, potentially, the airline’s technology that will be put to the test.

Those that want to have all the rich content currently on their own systems available to the agency community (and through it to the high yielding business and long-haul traveller) will have to make sure their IT infrastructure is able to cope once the requests start pouring in.

And some who are further behind may have to make sure they have actually got that content and decide how it should be presented for optimal commercial impact.

Travelport said this week it has seen airline website response times vary markedly from one second to as much as 23. The new air merchandising platform will paint in the results into the agents’ workflow as they are delivered, so fastest finger wins in this new environment.

The other key aspect to note in all this is timing.

Iata has promised to turn the distribution system on its head with its New Distribution Capability (NDC) platform originally said to be slated for delivery in a pilot form in May.

The GDSs, which are all in developmental talks with Iata on this, are nevertheless relaxed that a project of such magnitude (delivering an entirely new set of standards for the global airline industry) will prove difficult and simply can’t happen quickly.

In the meantime the emerging GDS approach is setting out to address many of the issues the airlines that support NDC are demanding around merchandising and differentiation.

In a two page statement about NDC handed out at this week’s platform announcement Travelport reasserted its “long-standing support of industry standards as long as they meet three basic criteria: transparency, balanced representation and balanced governance”.

This basically means that the GDS will simply not countenance any move that stifles the ability to comparison shop and differentiate through the agency channel or that undermines transparency or favours one set of stakeholders over any other.

It feels its new air merchandising platform is proof that it is ready, willing and able to do exactly what the airlines say they want citing its work with Air Canada through its bespoke Agencia API system, the distribution of KLM economy comfort seating through industry standards, its partnership that has helped bring easyJet into the GDS on the airline’s own terms and its BA API as examples that it is prepared to be adaptable.

The statement said: “Travelport is currently in implementation with a number of additional carriers using XML technologies which will further extend the list of carriers present within the Travelport GDS without them having to use existing industry standards.

“If an IATA airline wishes to use NDC schema to distribute products to production then we are happy to work with such an airline but at this time our production workload means that we cannot partake in pilots for NDC.”

It continued that many unanswered questions remain about NDC:

  • If airlines exercise total control over governance, can the Iata NDC truly represent and protect the interests of all stakeholders in the travel chain including travel agents and travellers?

  • Can repeating a failed history serve as a path towards transparency? If the Iata NDC was committed to transparency, why has it selected the Open AXIS standard, which previously failed as a standard for XML distribution, in part because it rejected a governance process that incorporated all parties within the supply chain?

  • How are consumer rights to privacy and transparency affected by the NDC model?

“To date our concerns have not been fully addressed. We call on Iata to demonstrate a commitment to meaningful, transparent governance among all the interested parties,” Travelport said.

In the end it comes down to choice and with its new hybrid merchandising capability Travelport believes it is offering a choice to airlines on how they want to journey with it into a greatly enhanced, richer, more value-based distribution future.

But one choice that’s not on the table is a return to an airline dominated for of distribution that was the reason for the carriers and the GDSs being sp-lit by regulators in the first place.

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