Airline NDC integration varies, creating challenges for agencies

NDC implementation would be smoother and travel advisors would encounter fewer servicing challenges if airlines adhered more closely to IATA’s programming standards, the airline trade group says.

And, IATA says, servicing, merchandising and other NDC capabilities will improve sharply as more airlines are certified in its most recent NDC standard, called 21.3. 

“21.3 is the way forward,” said Yanik Hoyles, director of IATA’s NDC program. 

As airline NDC deployments have ratcheted up in recent months, travel advisors have chafed about challenges to servicing tickets purchased via NDC-enabled connections, including handling relatively ordinary tasks such as schedule changes and exchanges. Back-office processing and settlement are among other sticking points.

The complexity and challenges of NDC implementations have been laid out in particular detail by American Express Global Business Travel, which identified 162 use cases that airlines, GDSs and online booking tools need to fulfill before their technology is ready for use. Air France-KLM is the furthest along in developing those capabilities, Amex GBT said.

“Although NDC has been billed as a standard, the 80-plus airlines offering NDC content are not implementing it in a standardized way,” the company said in a June 5 blog

Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s senior vice president of financial settlement and distribution services, offered remarks of a similar nature a day later during a media briefing at IATA’s Annual General Meeting in Istanbul in June. 

“We need to further analyze what are these pain points and how can they be overcome,” he said in reference to NDC deployments. “One of the main challenges is that although the standards are there, the implementations could be different. That’s where the differences are really happening …. We are trying to get everybody to adapt the standards as similarly as possible.”

Sharply different NDC versions

Miami-based Pass Consulting has done NDC implementations for Air France-KLM, the Lufthansa Group, Singapore Airlines, Amadeus and NDC aggregator Travelfusion. Pass Consulting CEO Michael Strauss said that each of those integrations has been sharply different, creating extra implementation cost and complexity while reducing efficiency.

Once complete, the differences also make it more challenging to troubleshoot the problems travel agencies might experience as they book and service NDC-enabled merchandise within content aggregators.

“If you implement so many different versions and those versions change, you basically never stop implementing,” Strauss said. “And that’s driving the cost up.” 

Strauss said he’s anxiously awaiting a time when more airlines coalesce around IATA’s 21.3, which he said some in the industry are calling the gold standard.

According to Hoyles, 21.3 enables retailing features not supported by earlier IATA NDC standards, including better shopping comparisons. In addition, it sets the stage for higher-quality documentation. Standard 21.3 also enables better support for alternate forms of payment as well as improved settlement and accounting. Servicing, he said, “is massively improved.”

So far, 13 companies have been certified for at least a portion of 21.3 capabilities. Among those are the GDSs Amadeus and Sabre, the NDC aggregator OpenJaw Technologies and NDC developers including Accelya and Datalex. Just four airlines — Turkish, Virgin Atlantic, Spain’s Vueling and China’s Xiamen — have achieved any 21.3 certification, IATA data shows.

Many airlines that are deploying NDC — among them the U.S. carriers American, United and Hawaiian — are certified in capabilities from IATA standards released in either 2017 or 2018.

Hoyles did say that many such airlines have independently developed key capabilities that go beyond what the 2017 and 2018 standards support and that could be as powerful as 21.3.

That reality speaks to a point made by Cory Garner, a former NDC strategist at American Airlines who now runs Garner, a consulting firm.

“Most of the IATA standard that exists today existed first as a nonstandard that was part of an airline’s API,” Garner said, adding that IATA’s first NDC standard was borrowed largely from American’s original 2008 NDC API.

When IATA blames challenges with NDC implementations and servicing on airlines straying from the standard, it ignores the fact that private innovations are what drive standards to evolve, Garner said.

By way of analogy, he equated a technical standard with a dictionary. Like two speakers of the same language, an airline and an NDC aggregator can choose to make use of the entire standard or a portion of it, or invent new language to augment the standard. 

“What travelers experience is what two parties who speak some version of the standard language do with the standard,” Garner said.

Garner said that, in general, the NDC servicing problems he is aware of are a result of inadequate technological transitions by the travel agencies that are tapping into GDSs and other aggregators.

Hoyles, too, said that a successful end-to-end NDC implementation requires contributions from airlines and the aggregator, as well as the travel agency. He also said that each implementation between airline and aggregator will be different due to the varying retailing needs of each airline.

Still, the IATA standard offers an important framework for airlines to congeal around. 

“More convergence reduces cost, expands the potential for new connections and increases the speed to market,” Hoyles said.

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