When Sabre and American Airlines launch the ability this month for travel agents to book and sell American’s premium seats using IATA's New Distribution Capability (NDC), it will signal an advance for NDC technology in the booking realm and a vote of confidence in the GDSs.

The collaboration is not the first between a GDS and an airline using NDC, but this one is between the largest U.S. airline and the largest U.S. GDS, promising to impact many more travel agents.

It also demonstrates that GDSs are integrating NDC into their systems rather than allowing it to displace them.

“This shows that there still is a place for GDSs and that they are going to develop the tools to be competitive and prevent [being] bypassed,” said Bob Offutt, a senior technology analyst for Phocuswright.

This month, Sabre users will be able to book premium seats for clients flying American, the first time the airline has allowed a GDS to sell upgraded seats, such as ones with additional legroom or preferred aircraft location. Sabre said that it currently offers ancillaries and branded fares from 60 airlines, but this is its first using NDC.

Cory Garner
Cory Garner

Cory Garner, American’s managing director of distribution and data commercialization, said there was more to come on this front and that Amadeus and Travelport were both in the process of implementing NDC integration with American’s direct-connect technology, giving travel agents far more booking options.

“There are now products on the shelf that otherwise could never have been there,” Garner said. “And airline products have evolved over time to be more than just fares; it’s fares and ancillary products. With these NDC connections now rolling  out, you’re starting to see ancillary products coming onto GDS shelves that can be priced and booked and sold within the travel agency’s normal workflow. Our relationship with Sabre is just the beginning of that, at least for American Airlines.”

Offutt agreed, saying that NDC lowered the barrier to entry into the GDS.

“What this will do will add the opportunity for a great deal more of flexibility in the products and services the supplier supplies to the GDS, because it isn’t constrained by the legacy messaging systems,” he said. “It means that the GDS can allow travel agencies to sell a variety of new products and services that they bring online fairly quickly.”

Ever since the terms “direct connect” and NDC began defining the ways that airlines use XML to connect ancillary products to travel sellers, the technology has often been viewed with suspicion as a way for airlines to bypass GDSs, fears confirmed by moves like Lufthansa’s in September implementing a fee for every GDS booking and Priceline entering into direct-booking deals with airlines, including American and United, enabling GDS-free connections.   

But according to Garner, American’s intention has always been to use its direct-connect technology both outside and within the GDSs.

Since 2009, he said, “we have contemplated a world in which American Airlines will use XML direct to travel agencies outside the GDS and to the GDSs themselves,” Garner said. “American has been distributing directly to travel agencies via XML for a long time. … Now, you are seeing the rest of that plan coming to fruition where GDSs themselves are tapping into the power of our XML technology.”

Garner admitted that perhaps because of some “very public disputes” that American had with several GDSs around the same time that NDC was being introduced, “there was a lot of suspicion that it was going to bypass the GDS.”

That suspicion, he said, “created a bit of a poisonous atmosphere. The good news is we finally turned the corner here, and we’re finally starting to make the benefits that NDC can provide available to travel agencies through the GDSs and not just outside GDSs.” 

Bob Offutt of Phocuswright anticipates more GDS agreements like the Sabre deal emerging simply because airlines are making most of their profit in ancillaries and need to be able to distribute them broadly.

Offutt anticipates more GDS agreements like the Sabre deal emerging simply because airlines are making most of their profit in ancillaries and need to be able to distribute them broadly. Still, he does predict that the legacy GDS technology will eventually be replaced by XML, though how that plays out remains unclear.

Shelly Terry, Sabre’s vice president of travel product solutions, said directly connecting to airlines will never replace the one-stop shop the GDS offers travel sellers.

“Being able to easily comparison shop, to be able to shop across a multitude of potential offerings … and being able to easily quote customers different kinds of fares as well as the ancillary products that might be available for purchase — and to be able to do all of that in their workflow — that’s the value we provide to the travel agent,” Terry said. “These are travel professionals … and efficiency is absolutely critical to the value proposition that they deliver to their customers.”

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