Travel agencies are worried as American’s NDC push looms

ASTA has asked American Airlines to hold off on its NDC push until the end of the year, but the carrier has given no indication that it plans to do so.
ASTA has asked American Airlines to hold off on its NDC push until the end of the year, but the carrier has given no indication that it plans to do so. Photo Credit: American Airlines

Many travel advisors are anticipating turmoil if American Airlines moves forward with its plan next month to make 40% of the content it provides GDSs available only via New Distribution Capability-enabled connections.

However, other key players in airline distribution say they'll be ready to handle most use cases for NDC-enabled bookings, provided American delivers the necessary technology. 

Jay Richmond, Amadeus' senior director of global solution consulting, said that agents utilizing Amadeus will be able to address the most common-use cases and that adding more is "top priority, and additional functionality will be added each quarter."

For its part, American says it's ready to support and service NDC bookings, both simple and complex. But the carrier is stopping short of assuring that distribution partners, such as the three large GDSs, will be equally as prepared. 

"While American's modern retailing technology may provide the capabilities, a travel agency or customer's experience will depend on the technical capabilities of their preferred technology partners they choose to do business with," the airline said. 

ASTA has asked American to hold off on its NDC push until the end of the year, but the carrier has given no indication that it plans to do so. 

Concern among travel agencies is multifaceted. They question whether American and the GDSs, especially Sabre, are prepared to support the full palette of NDC-enabled bookings. They also say American has not given leisure agencies and TMCs enough time to build out their own NDC-compatible technology. 

While American has for several years communicated its intent to transition its indirect bookings from legacy Edifact technology to NDC -- a move that it says will give customers access to a wider array of content, such as promotions, branded fares and ancillary services -- it was only in December that the airline announced plans to pull 40% of its fares from legacy GDSs. American content of any sort won't even be live in Sabre until April 1 due to integration delays stemming from a legal dispute.

"It was unrealistic from the start, frankly," said ASTA board chair Marc Casto, who is also Flight Centre's executive vice president of communications and government affairs. "There's no corporation in the world that can turn around, do an analysis on it and go to contracts within six months."

Flight Centre figures to be at the leading edge of TMCs in terms of NDC technology build-out due to its acquisition last year of TPConnects, which runs an NDC-based booking engine. But in general, achieving NDC readiness is most challenging for companies with complex travel requirements, such as managed corporate travel. 

"It's important to acknowledge the technical barriers that still exist in the NDC ecosystem, which make it difficult -- or impossible -- to deliver services and capabilities such as mixed carrier bookings, robust post-sales support and unused ticket management, which are considered essential for corporate travel," corporate travel agency CWT said in a statement. "This is among the reasons that only a small fraction of business travel today is transacted through NDC-enabled channels."

The company also said preparation has been made more difficult because American has not revealed which fare classes it will withhold from legacy channels. 

According to a February story in corporate travel publication The Company Dime, American Express GBT identified 162 use cases that connections between airlines and distribution partners must support to create a minimum marketable product. Amex did not expect American to have achieved even half of those by April.

Servicing capabilities in doubt

Travel advisors question whether American and the GDSs will be ready next month to handle all but the most basic itineraries for NDC bookings. Concerns have been raised about bookings for multiple passengers, children, interlines and codeshares. Concerns also have arisen regarding servicing capabilities, including changes, cancellations and refunds.

Sabre, especially, is drawing questions.

Peter Vlitas, who heads Internova's air team, said his company has been running tests with Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus.

"On Sabre, what you can do today is very basic," Vlitas said. "You can make a reservation for one person -- and that's it. If somebody wants to make a change, etc., we then have to call American Airlines and do it with them."

Sabre didn't respond to questions, but in a February blog, the company said it now supports exchanges via NDC and that child and infant passenger types will be available by midyear. 

Travelport and Amadeus are offering more assurances. Travelport chief product and technology officer Tom Kershaw said the GDS is ready to support multileg and multi-passenger bookings, seat assignments, interlines and codeshares. 

In some cases, however, the GDS is awaiting technology upgrades from American. The carrier recently began supporting multi-passenger and children's itineraries in Travelport but not interlines and codeshares. Travelport is also awaiting content from American. As of March 21, the airline had not provided the GDS with NDC-enabled content for indirect bookings, though Kershaw expects to receive that content around April 5. Travelport can support exchanges, refunds, involuntary transactions and voids, he said. 

Richmond of Amadeus said they're also ready to support and service common-use cases, assuming that agency tech stacks are up to speed and American content is provided.

As an example of a more complex NDC use case Amadeus is still building out, Richmond cited a situation in which American makes an involuntary change to a traveler's ticketed flight, but the traveler doesn't want to accept the change.

On its webpage, American says that its NDC API offers broad functionality for booking and servicing, including simple and complex itineraries, interlines, codeshares, commission payment, refunds, settlement, name changes and more. Group bookings aren't supported by the API. 

Significantly, NDC order itineraries won't be able to be exchanged for bookings made via legacy technology.

American is also imposing limits on how many changes agencies can make to NDC-enabled bookings, Travelport's Kershaw said. The airline didn't answer a question seeking specifics on those limits.

Jamie Biesiada contributed to this report.


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