I keep hearing the same concerns about the perceived speed of the transition to airline digital retailing, whether I speak with airlines, sellers and travel tech companies who have embarked in the transition, or with other players who have chosen to wait and see.
Understanding the good and bad reasons for the lack of speed (compared to expectations) is helpful to find ways to accelerate the transition. It will be even more valuable to plan for the next transition, towards order management.
What are the expectations?
Having one airline implementing one distribution API is fast. Air Canada had a distribution API before NDC started. easyJet had an API connected with one GDS before NDC started. An airline group called Open Axis even had a standard for API distribution before NDC started. If this is all we know, NDC should be implemented globally in a couple of years, right?
On the other hand, airlines, travel agents and GDSs have been working hard for the past 50 years to build a global interconnected platform allowing any customer to find in real-time the best itinerary and best fare to get from A to B anywhere in the world. Even after 50 years of hard work, using pre-internet technologies, the platform does not support the latest innovations in dynamic pricing and ancillaries. Upgrading this entire platform, with new processes and technologies, should take at least 50 years, right?
A reasonable expectation lies probably in the middle. Implementing NDC worldwide has clearly not taken 2-3 years (this was only the time necessary to get the US DOT approval). But hopefully upgrading the distribution infrastructure of the air travel industry won’t take 50 years. For a program launched in 2011, the transition will be completed for the first players in 2025 and probably for the rest of the industry by 2030.
What are the key remaining challenges for implementation?
The initial challenges were typical of a major digital transformation program, except for contractual and business models issues, which are specific to the status of this industry. Challenges included: awareness, business case, funding, skilled resources, contractual restrictions, technical solution, innovative partners, incentives, on-boarding, and differentiated content.
Awareness: I’d be curious to see the results of an awareness survey, showing how many travel distribution professionals have heard about NDC and can define it.
Business case: While many airlines have figured out a business case, including revenue generation from ancillaries, cost reductions and enhanced customer experience, there are still many players still scratching their heads. Indeed, selling the same product, to the same customer, via the same channel, won’t create value even with a new technology.
Funding: Any project requiring investment in the current environment is a challenge. The pandemic crisis has cut the cash resources for most airlines and travel agents. Despite the crisis, some airlines and travel agents keep investing because the new distribution channels, enabled by NDC, are more profitable.
Skilled resources: The transition to digital retailing first required a mindset shift from the management. Then the training or recruitment of staff able to manage API distribution and create new offers across multiple distribution channels. Last but not least, sales teams briefed and equipped to engage the travel agencies about partnership and value creation.
Contractual restrictions: Airlines and travel agents have signed distribution contracts with GDSs, which may contain restrictions or incentives preventing the implementation of alternative channels. Although the European Commission recently closed their 2018 GDS investigation about “possible restrictions in competition in the market for airline ticket distribution services”, such restrictions may remain a challenge today.
Technical solution: With the most advanced airlines having shifted 50% of their indirect bookings on NDC, the technical questions (scalability, look-to-book, polling, caching, etc.) are identified and discussed within technical industry groups. There is still a lot of progress and improvement to be made, i.e. innovation opportunities.
Innovation partners: A key benefit of an open standard for air travel distribution is that it allows new entrants to enter the market, to innovate and partners with existing players. Today there are NDC API providers, NDC aggregators and other NDC service providers (post-booking, etc.).
Incentives: Airlines have designed various distribution strategies and travel agents have elaborated content sourcing strategies to take advantage of the new content and fares. The current transition shows a mix of incentives, ranging from carrots (commissions…) to sticks (surcharges…). After the transition, value creation should become the driver between partners.
On-boarding: Airlines who have built their “distribution platform” are on-boarding travel sellers, either directly or through aggregators. This process takes time and will accelerate over time.
Differentiated content: The purpose of NDC is to enable a new distribution channel, for airlines and travel agents, capable of supporting any kind of airline offers. This channel adds value to partners once content is differentiated, i.e. more than “airline code – origin-destination – date – fare”. Dynamic offers, where the product and the price are constructed dynamically, will leverage the channel and create even further value.
There are more challenges ahead. They reflect the ambition of the modernization of air travel distribution, the opportunities for new services and new entrants, and the reasons underpinning the time the transition takes.
Although I wish the transition moved faster, the current pace is probably right. NDC was launched as something that will and must happen, regardless of the timeline. Knowing that it would happen, the challenge was to make it happen as quickly as possible, but also as robustly as possible in case it lasts for another 50 years.
The next phase of the transition is about order management. The question is not “if” but “when”. The travel industry needs to accelerate the transition to order management if it wants to capture the full benefits of digital retailing. Or we may soon hear “Why is ONE Order taking so long?”.
One Order: The proof of the pudding is in the eating
NDC has transformed airline distribution. Well, while that particular statement can be debated for many hours, one thing that can be said is that it has changed the vocabulary of airline distribution.
The mindset of airline distribution has genuinely been transformed to think in terms of “offers” and “orders”, about APIs and dynamic bundles and so on. Indeed, many airlines are implementing these concepts in their distribution landscape.
But what has really changed, beyond some terminology? Well, for certain, airlines are thinking much more like retailers. They are thinking about the customer (purchasing) experience, products, bundles, segmentation, and they are thinking about how to get these into their distribution channels as offers – through NDC and their digital direct channels. The transformation of an offer into a sale of products is resulting in the creation of orders. However, most orders still rely on a system which also uses legacy artefacts such as PNRs, tickets and EMDs.
“Airlines become more retail-focussed, more confident in their capabilities as retailers and more well-equipped…”
As airlines become more retail-focussed, more confident in their capabilities as retailers and more well-equipped with tools to enable this, the more creative and ambitious airlines will become. More products in bundles, different products in different markets, integrations with providers of travel-related services that see the market developing as the technical obstacles of legacy artefacts are steadily removed from the equation. This gentle transformation is also driving changes elsewhere throughout airline organisations, as the knock-on effects of these begin to be noticed. Orders created within an order management system provide a vehicle for simplified settlement processes between sales channels (retailers) and the airlines as sellers. While the full complexity of airline revenue accounting, proration, BSP and other settlement flows cannot be eliminated overnight, the ONE Order accounting standards are enabling change. As the maturity of NDC distribution increases and orders become more prevalent, airline IT providers are presented with opportunities to bring further simplification, leveraging NDC and ONE Order. Providers of Order Management Systems (OMS) are now able to integrate directly with airline accounting systems in real-time, bypassing much of the legacy complexity associated with PNRs, tickets and EMDs.
However, there is more to being a successful airline retailer than creating offers, converting them into orders and feeding the fruits of these sales into the airline’s financial systems. At some point in time, there will be a customer who has expectations based on their wider retail experiences. The retail possibilities that airlines are now becoming exposed to go far beyond their own domain. While the additional bag will (hopefully) be visible at the time of check-in, and the lounge may be run by the airline, what about the pre-booked parking, fast-track security or the express train to the airport? The airline is unlikely to be the entity responsible for delivering the service in these cases, but the expectations of the customer are the same as when they present at the desk to drop off their bag – it should just work. However, interacting with all these new parties to ensure “it just works” is unchartered territory for many airlines. More and more, this involves pushing an order notification to the external service provider via the OMS to fulfil a service. Interactive two-way messaging related to order fulfilment is new. And, in the envisaged world where the PNR and ticket are superfluous, even the interactions with the check-in providers need to be brought into the era of APIs and open integration standards.
“IATA has anticipated this and has developed a set of standards within the ONE Order framework to enable the delivery of services using orders…”
In conjunction with airlines, vendors and other industry stakeholders, IATA has anticipated this and has developed a set of standards within the ONE Order framework to enable the delivery of services using orders. These messages can be used by an OMS to trigger the delivery by pushing information to the responsible party or can be used by delivery providers to pull the necessary information proactively. They can track consumption of services as well, which is key to triggering accounting and settlement processes. However, certification for ONE Order capabilities is still very light compared to NDC. While the certifications only may only be taken as a loose measure of maturity, it would appear that there may be a vast gap between what airlines can now sell and what (or rather how) they can deliver.
The reasons for this apparent mismatch are manifold and varied in their nature (technical, process-related, commercial), and some may be easier to resolve than others. What is more concerning though is the apparent lack of awareness of this mismatch among the broader industry. Great focus has been placed on promoting the need for modernisation in how airlines define and sell their products and services. However, there is still one key component that will become a challenge sooner rather than later – where the customer gets to seamlessly experience all those products and services that the airline invested so much effort in to get the customer to purchase.
The collaboration between airlines and their OMS partners is, generally speaking, mature, collaborative and based on a common understanding of business value and goals. The relationship between airlines and their ground handling partners is of a very different, operational nature and is often very cost-driven to extract the maximum value at the lowest cost. On the other hand, the relationship between OMS providers and ground handlers is non-existent in most cases.
Planning and executing the smooth delivery of products is key to being a successful retailer. Achieving this requires close alignment between all stakeholders: airlines, their OMS providers and crucially, the ground handlers and other partners, in and around the airport, in the air or wherever else they may be. So far, the focus has been on the selling aspect of retailing and increasing revenue and airline wallet share. However, if airlines are really to succeed as retailers, customer satisfaction will be determined by what, and how, they deliver. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.