Amadeus’ Ludo Verheggen (left) and American Airlines’ Neil Geurin discuss:
- Progress toward NDC critical mass
- More standardization with a new schema
- Potential for including sustainability in NDC offers
Amadeus this month published a report dubbing 2021 as “the year of scaling” for the International Air Transport Association’s New Distribution Capability standard, citing airlines’ development and release of bundles and travel management companies going live with NDC content. Recently, Ludo Verheggen (Amadeus director for global content acceleration) and Neil Geurin (American Airlines director of distribution strategies), spoke to Michael B. Baker, BTN transport editor, about their respective progress with NDC, as well as what they can expect from the IATA’s new schema. Below is an edited transcript.
BTN: How has progress with NDC advanced during the pandemic?
Ludo Verheggen: We’re 100 percent committed to drive NDC forward together with our partners in collaborating with the whole industry. We are very happy where we stand today. American started NDC rollout worldwide in January. We are now live in over 50 countries. In the coming months we will go live in all the Americas. The Amadeus Travel Agency Community will have access to NDC content before the year ends. This will allow them all to make their first steps. This technology will allow us to make more progress and help rebuild travel.
Neil Geurin: We are spending a lot of time getting ready for our corporate customers to come back, starting late this year or early next year. Since 2005, my focus has been on distribution. I want it to become a simple distribution business. Amadeus made it possible for us to forget about NDC in 2022. This is thanks to a lot of their work. This is the content customers are looking for, available on their preferred channels. The product is what we will be referring to after that. Now, we are on the right track.
BTN: Did the pandemic alter your course?
Verheggen: The strategic importance of NDC has not changed, and if anything, it probably has only increased. Now that we’re gearing up for the recovery of our industry, for hopefully much more travel to start soon including the much-awaited corporate travel, we want to highlight how NDC can help all of us—airlines, travel sellers and corporate travelers—to rebuild travel in a better way, a more personalized way, a more dynamic way and a more modern way. Collaboration is key. There are many areas that need to be improved.
Geurin: It’s been an unusual last year and a half for us, but we’ve all had an opportunity to take some of this time and get ready for corporate travel, which is going to come back. As the basis for what this will look like in the future, we see Amadeus’s work and NDC as being the best. We announced earlier this year a few NDC-driven products, Main Plus being the most notable of those, a product available for a customer so they can get access to a slightly better seat in the coach cabin, preferred boarding and an extra bag. As a testing point, we realized that many corporate customers are purchasing all these things in different ways and jumping through hoops. How about if all that was put together made it easy to do business with. Testing and learning is something we believe in. This year, we tested it out and worked through the process to bring this to new channels each day. Amadeus will soon have this feature. It’s a very popular product. It’s a very popular product and we have sold a lot of it. American is currently working on more products, which will be released late in the year or early next year. We will have a number more products available and work with the partners we have at Amadeus who want to book via and agency or [global distribution system].
BTN: Are those initiatives still focused on corporate travel, or are you targeting leisure travel, since that is what is recovering at the moment?
Geurin: We don’t limit ourselves. All the possibilities are available to us. Covid opened our eyes and allowed us to consider the opportunities for NDC in leisure. There will be a lot of growth in NDC options for leisure customers over the next year. However, we see the potential to create bundles for smaller businesses and corporations.
Verheggen: It’s these types of initiatives, the new types of bundles that can only be distributed through NDC thanks to that technology, that’s really helping us to make those steps we now need to make. Over the past few years, it wasn’t just about certain airline fares being moved from the GDS channel to NDC. This doesn’t always create the momentum we want. These types of products are what create traction. They allow us to show off the potential of NDC. We’re just at the beginning. Travel sellers around the globe, especially corporate travellers, agree that new products and bundles are what they want and will be most successful at driving adoption.
BTN: Have the lower travel volumes during the pandemic offered any advantage on getting new products rolled out?
Geurin: One of the interesting things that this pandemic period has done for the industry is while the corporate travel has been light, leisure has not. It means that many customers that were once corporate customers and who will not be corporate customers after the outbreak have started making reservations through their personal booking tools. NDC’s biggest challenge has been getting the information from NDC to the corporate customer. We’ve needed a connection from a GDS that’s NDC-capable and a [travel management company] that’s-NDC capable and a booking tool that’s NDC capable. It was difficult for many people to come together and hold hands. Corporate customers didn’t have the ability to get on the same page. They have used OTAs and metasearch engines, which are all NDC-capable, for the past year. They will be more open to adopting these tools when they return to corporate travel.
Verheggen: One of the main advantages of NDC is that it allows our industry to reach a new level of regularity, in terms of the type of offers being made and also the information around those offers that can be interchanged between the airlines to the corporate traveler, thanks to that new level of granularity. This will make it easier for corporate travelers to understand the details of each offer, including the costs and benefits.
BTN: What will the upcoming new schema for NDC from IATA mean for progress?
Geurin: We’ve gone through the last few years dependent on the schema of the 2017 time period. Even though I don’t see a world that makes these constant changes every day, sometimes it’s beneficial for us all to agree upon a common schema. This will allow us all to collaborate and make products more efficiently in the future. Although we do not want to be doing this every year, it is worth taking a few years off or five years to reevaluate the situation and make sure everyone has equal opportunities. Because it’s a boost for our partners to do this, we’re looking at how to help them. But with new partners joining that standard, they will be in a great place to begin. We feel that we have arrived at the right moment. There has been enough progress since the 2017 standard was established to create a new baseline for everyone.
Verheggen: What we all need to be conscious of is that we’ve been learning over the last few years in our NDC journey. Many airlines began their NDC journeys in 2017. Others started in 2018. Many airlines started NDC in 2017 while others began it in 2018 or 2019. The new 21.3 version incorporates all the lessons learned over the past four years. It is now clearer and more comprehensive. The collaboration aspect has been crucial. We have worked closely with our airline partners, IATA as the owner and operator of the standard to find ways we can improve. We believe that the 21.3 update and any subsequent releases will bring more standardization to our environment, which is a win-win situation for everyone.
Geurin: I’m actually excited about this because one of the challenges that NDC addresses is that the technology underlying at least air travel didn’t really change at all for a period of about 25 years, so getting to a rhythm to where we can update the way we do this every handful of years is the right thing to do. This is what you see in any other technology. We just haven’t done that the past three decades. We are much healthier than ever before.
BTN: Where are your TMC partners on this journey right now?
Verheggen: Within our NDC-X program, we’ve been working closely with all the large global TMCs from the beginning, so it’s been great to see the progress that has been made in that space over the last few years. TMCs see NDC as the greatest change because it integrates the entire TMC ecosystem with GDSs. It is a massive undertaking for TMCs to be efficient in NDC use and provide the same service level corporate customers expect. We were thrilled to have them join the adventure from the very beginning. It is even more exciting to know that they are all piloting together and are all working hard to become NDC-ready by the end. While it is important for online booking sites to integrate the NDC content, that’s only one step. The TMCs must also adapt their downstream processes, as well, and any tools they use, to ensure the same.
Geurin: If we do our job well here and develop products and services that customers like and appreciate, that means they’ll be more satisfied, which should lead to the whole ecosystem being happier, healthier and better partners going forward. Partnerships between TMCs (airlines), TMCs (booking tools) and TMCs (and their GDS partner GDS), are possible thanks to our efforts. They have the opportunity to become experts in servicing new tools. This is something that your average customer may not be an expert in. This is a chance for TMCs and customers to show their value. We all know that to succeed in corporate spaces, we must work hand-in-hand alongside the GDSs, TMCs, and booking tools. This creates a partnership between us all, which allows us all to share in creating a better customer experience.
BTN: With corporations focusing more on sustainability in their travel programs, are there any potential ways for NDC to help advance that?
Geurin: There were some months here in the Covid time where we didn’t have as much going on as we’d like to within our NDC development team because a number of our partners had to slow down, so we chose to use that time productively and coded an NDC solution for our carbon-offset partner. Although this is not the final word in sustainability, it does show that there are ways that our business and corporate customers can offset their carbon. We can help them. This could be a package or an individual item in a booking engine.
Verheggen: More of our airline partners are looking at carbon offsets now as a first inroad to combine NDC and distribution with more sustainability, so that’s a very good example and it’s great to see the progress that American mad there. NDC gives us more flexibility, dynamism and innovation. NDC allows us to make a new product on a global scale very quickly if Neil from American Tomorrow comes up with it. This is a vast improvement over the past, when this type of innovation took a longer and more cumbersome approach. All these possibilities are possible because of the technology now available that allows data to be exchanged with photos and other kinds of graphic information.