NDC adopters ready to move beyond 'plumbing' projects

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Covid-19 during the past year might have shoved New Distribution Capability out of the corporate travel spotlight, but in the past few months, a number of big industry announcements regarding IATA's standard have popped up.

Emirates, for example, announced it will launch in July an NDC-enabled direct-connect platform, Emirates Gateway, with exclusive content and services -- while at the same time introducing a surcharge of up to $25 per ticket on global distribution system bookings.

The Lufthansa Group closed out last year with a pair of NDC content deals with both Sabre and American Express Global Business Travel.

American Airlines, meanwhile, in February announced new NDC bundles for its NDC-capable agents, including a "Corporate Experience" offer that includes such perks as complimentary access to preferred seats and priority privileges for Business Extra travelers, and Amadeus, Travelport and Fareportal's online travel agencies all have announced they would distribute them.

Expect those announcements to continue flowing in the coming months, as some distribution experts say 2021 could be a transformative year in terms of NDC.

"Despite the unprecedented difficulties the industry faced in 2020, 2021 will see in many ways an acceleration of the change that really started to manifest itself in 2019," said Bill Cavendish, a former Emirates vice president of distribution strategy who recently joined technology provider Accelya to oversee its NDC strategy with airlines. "Many airlines were already well down the road to grasping the opportunity being afforded around the new technology."

The Covid-19 pandemic, of course, forced airlines to make tough decisions regarding capital spending as their revenue evaporated. Delta Air Lines, for example, last fall in a partner interview with Sabre, posted on YouTube, said it was taking some of its resources used for NDC to instead focus on "working within the existing ecosystem we currently have."

Across the industry, however, many of the projects slowed in the initial days of the "big shock" of Covid-19 have come back, Qantas head of distribution Nadine Dawood Morgan said at a recent CAPA Live virtual event.

"There was a pause across the industry, and some partners were in survival mode," she said. "It was short-lived, that pause, and we've got quite a lot happening. We've had some partners that have had to slow down a bit, but we've had others that wanted to accelerate."

London-based travel software platform and NDC aggregator Duffel said the end of last year was "really busy on the NDC side," not necessarily with announcements but with activity, said Duffel CEO and co-founder Steve Domin. Several airlines were evaluating their strategies and going out for requests for proposals, and that has continued into this year with "a lot of contracts being signed and a lot of implementation on the way," he said.

Sabre Travel Solutions vice president of offer sourcing Kathy Morgan likened the pandemic period to a "hibernation" and said that most airlines that already had a strong NDC strategy -- American, United, Qantas and Singapore, for example -- kept on that path despite the pandemic.

"[Sabre's] Beyond NDC has such strong market engagement, and airlines and third-party companies that had a really clear, defined roadmap are now seeing the fruits of their labor," she said. "Although the industry went to sleep for a while, we didn't."

For those airlines who had not done much work on NDC, however, not much changed for them, she said.

As reported in sister publication The Beat earlier this year, IATA reported that its 2020 Leaderboard goals -- in which 20 initial participants aimed to get to 20% NDC bookings by volume at the end of last year -- technically was met among the group in aggregate, albeit among a very low volume set that included little in the ways of corporate travel. The push among airlines and distributors now, however, is to demonstrate the value of the work up to this point.

"This is going to be a year of hopefully moving away from just getting the plumbing in place and getting some real added value to the whole NDC initiative," Travelport head of customer strategy and marketing Will Owen Hughes said at the CAPA Live event.

The GDS agreements, including the Sabre-Lufthansa deal, are one key gateway in potentially providing that value. Amadeus has been particularly busy on this front. In February, it announced that it had begun NDC integration with International Airlines Group, with plans to distribute content from both British Airways and Iberia in the back half of this year, and it has announced an NDC agreement with American Airlines as well. It also began rolling out content from Singapore Airlines this year and last fall announced an NDC distribution deal with Air France-KLM with a wider rollout expected this year.

Like the others, Amadeus head of distribution solutions and the Amadeus NDC X program Mark Ridley said NDC work with airlines slowed during the pandemic, but no carriers pulled out. Now, with some of the programs in the early trial stages, Amadeus and the carriers are beginning to explore some of the possible uses, he said.

Singapore, for example, is trying "some interesting things with promo codes" in which users get back offers, such as a bundle, after supplying a code, Ridley said. With the agencies piloting the Air France-KLM connection, testing includes corporate bundles pushed out front when corporate IDs are recognized as well as "continuous pricing" beyond the traditional limited fare buckets.

"The piece we really want to emphasize is a way of recognizing the corporation, where we recognize you and give you a package, and you know you will be getting the right thing," Ridley said. "We can use these new retailing methods to stand out against competitors who are still doing the same-old, same-old."

As a result of the pandemic, airlines now are increasingly emphasizing ensuring servicing capabilities with NDC bookings, Sabre's Morgan said. Some are saying that capability is a requirement before they will release the content, she said. 

"Some capabilities that weren't top of mind for airlines, they're now realizing we can't come out of a Covid world without them," Morgan said. "With the changing and volatility around travel, it has to be able to support this."

NDC adoption outside of the GDSs continue to gain momentum as well, including some new entrants. Travel platform App in the Air, for one, in February announced new NDC connections via Duffel to Lufthansa Group airlines, via ATPCO to Southwest Airlines and through Hahn Air to smaller regional airlines. Originally a personal assistant app for frequent travelers, App in the Air added booking capabilities last year and decided it would jump right into direct NDC connections rather than building connections through GDS deals, though some content does come via GDSs, CEO and founder Bayram Annakov said.

"We're eliminating the GDS surcharge, and we know that some fares won't be exported into the GDS," he said. "With the NDC connection we're getting, we can manage and cancel all the itineraries for our bookings, and airlines can offer ancillaries in our app."

If demand begins amid the recovery later this year as projected, that could fuel a greater pace of development as well.

"From the conversations we've had, now is the time to reset, to regroup and go again with more determination and focus on becoming an effective retailer," Accelya's Cavendish said. "Customers want to engage directly with travelers, and airlines want to build balance sheets back as quickly as they can by being more effective in the way they sell products and services, so we're going to see that momentum carry throughout 2021 and onwards."

Source: Business Travel News

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