Rolf Purzer, CEO
ATPCO began in 1965 as the Airline Tariff Publishing Company
to publish passenger fares. The organization now works with more than 460 airlines
and systems worldwide, supplying more than 87% of fare data to global
distribution systems, online travel agencies, airline reservation systems and
other providers, along with related content such as optional services and
Rolf Purzer has been with ATPCO for 22 years and became CEO
in 2017. We talked to Purzer this week in Washington, D.C., at the company’s Elevate
conference, which convened more than 400 airline professionals, travel
distributors, technology suppliers and startups.
You became CEO at ATPCO in early 2017 – back then some were
questioning ATPCO’s ability to adapt and remain relevant as the pace of change
in airline distribution has picked up – do you think you’ve addressed those
naysayers in the two and half years since? And if so, how?
I think absolutely, yes, we’ve proven any doubters wrong.
We’ve been foundational to flight shopping since the beginning, so we expect
those types of questions. It’s also fair to say that the last several years has
seen a lot of disruption in travel: new entrants, NDC, retailing and more. It
hasn’t been easy for anyone in the industry to keep up and the acquisition of
Routehappy has certainly helped ATPCO. Beyond that, we’ve announced a lot today
that demonstrates our focus on agility and adding value across the ecosystem—to
airlines, systems and sales channels. NGS, Dynamic Pricing are two good
examples of that.
In early 2018, ATPCO acquired airline merchandising content
platform Routehappy, which at the time was still a fairly lean startup. What
are some of the intangible benefits that has brought to ATPCO’s operations and
Of course, the products are great—that’s the easiest part to
measure. However, the culture, people processes and perspectives have been a
very important part of the acquisition
to support the ATPCO transformation. We’re absolutely delighted to have
integrated several positions into our executive leadership and very proud that
close to all employees have stayed on, even a year later. Our industry is
close‐knit, so having that familiarity and energy is just fantastic,
complimented by the dedication and entrenched industry knowledge it’s been
great synergy. It’s helped transform the whole company—even back office
functions. We’re very focused on implementing our solutions faster, so that
lean thinking is critical. Likewise, we want to add value more broadly, to
other airline functions and sales channels, for example. The “Start‐up energy”
and agility is a real driver for that.
It would be fair to say that Routehappy was a hugely
important and strategic acquisition for ATPCO. What gaps in the business still
Well, ATPCO has been on a mission for a few years now to
connect all content to all channels. It’s a heavy lift, but we are up for the
challenge. The industry and ATPCO’s rich content trajectory is great but
scaling it fully—across all channels—is not quite finished. We’ll be making
more announcements later this year, so keep your eyes open. Suffice it to say,
we’re not in this alone and other companies in the industry are keys to that
Second, we have more work to do serving other airline
functions. This era of retailing requires better alignment across airline
Revenue Management, Digital and Distribution teams. We can do better providing the tools and
services to make that easier. That’s a big focus for next year.
Lastly, we need to have a deeper think about what’s next.
Most people think fares are reducing, that’s actually not true. They’re
increasing, as are the number of sales channels and stakeholders. So the
logical questions are around compiling and monitoring all that data so that
flight shopping becomes truly personalized. That means closing the loop on
content so airlines can create more relevant offers. We’ll be busy for quite a
while connecting it together.
What is the number one problem that airlines still come to
It's most likely the number one thing airlines say to us,
“keep the systems working well so they can do their jobs.” It sounds easy, but it’s not: interoperability
is at the core of everything we do. The fact that an airline can change a price
once—at any time—and then have that change show in all channels is quite
challenging and complex. More than anything, keeping that fast and reliable
always comes first. Building on it—with richer content, dynamic and eventually
personalized offers comes next. But that
success depends on having the right building blocks upon which to scale.
As you look to the future, do you see more acquisitions on
the horizon for ATCPO? And related to that, what factors do you consider when
evaluating whether to build, buy or partner?
Who knows? We’re always looking across the industry. What
made this one work so well were complementary cultures and products focused by
a unified mission: both serve the industry to connect full, primary content,
passionately and openly. If we find like‐minded companies that can help improve
flight shopping, why not?
What are the biggest issues or weaknesses right now with NDC
and its implementation? And is NDC more about technology or about the control
NDC is here and evolving; I think we’re past the “will it
take off” phase. The challenges are getting it to scale and by that, I mean
high volumes with interlining and other complexities. For many of the sales
channels integration of NDC is quite difficult which is why we’re seeing a lot
of aggregation. Our role is to make that alignment more efficient: richer
content, message translation, easier integration. I think your second question
is really the right one. If we’re being honest, control is always the primary
motivator but better technology—better offers—is really the only way it sticks.
That’s why it’s not so ‘New’ now, right?
Give us your perspective on IATA's One Order and how far
away the aviation sector is with achieving many of the goals that surround it?
We’re really just keeping an eye on it now to see how we
might help going forward. I think IATA is doing the right thing by pushing for
some alignment and we are supportive of what they are trying to achieve—we know
it’s not easy.
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About a year ago, you announced a proof of concept with SITA
and Blockskye to explore the use of blockchain for airline offer and order
management. What is the status of that?
We began this as a technology R&D paper to determine
where blockchain has potential viability. The results of the paper highlighted
there was not a clear application in our main fare distribution basis. But we are considering other use cases of Blockchain technology
for potential applications with order integrity, although there’s more work
needed to validate these findings. We will continue to explore this technology
but currently there is not a clear project or solution we are pursuing at this
What are your thoughts on the role of companies such as
Google and Amazon and Alibaba to disrupt travel?
There’s certainly real opportunity for disruption as these
companies have a very strong foothold with travelers. Not just with the data,
but with emerging technologies, like voice. In other ways though, the fears of
disruption may be exaggerated. There are very unique aspects to this industry;
air travel is massively interdependent and tends to focus on interoperability
and redundancy first and foremost. That isn’t the sexiest thing, but it’s true.
If one airline has irregular operations in a remote part of the world, everyone
pitches in. It’s really quite extraordinary, you may have seen that recently
with Thomas Cook or the hurricanes in the Bahamas. Those systems and processes
work throughout air and they’ve been expanding and evolving for decades. I
don’t see that going away. The question is around the evolution of customer
engagement both now and with emerging technologies. Either way, we’ll certainly see more
expansion: more packaging of air and other products, more personalized offers,
more ways to buys tickets - with Alexa and Siri, for example. There’s a lot of room to increase the pie and
those companies are in a really good position to do just that.
Earlier this year ATPCO launched “Lead from the Front” – an
employee‐led initiative to support professional development for women at all
levels. I understand you’ve not only supported the concept, you’ve also
allocated money toward it. Why is that important and what will it take to get
more travel industry companies on board with initiatives like this?
ATPCO as a company and myself, personally are proud to
support Lead from the Front, our women in technology and aviation initiative.
It’s a fantastic program that is engaging both the women and men of ATPCO to
empower women to lead, through mentoring, community and connecting our experts
to important market and technology conversations. It’s important because
diversity of perspective is good for all. We are happy to take our place here
along with other leaders like IATA.
You’ve been in the travel industry for several decades,
including the last 22 years with ATPCO. What advice do you have for people just
starting in this industry?
My advice for people
starting out is make learning your own responsibility and do not wait to be
“sent to a class”. On that basis – if you want to be a leader – develop a
leadership point of view early and don’t wait until you get promoted. Actively
seek and find mentors who can help you, from bouncing off ideas to more meaty
topics like career progression etc. I’m also a strong believer in surrounding
yourself with smarter people than you and never thinking you have all the
answers. Being able to delegate and rely on people to give you advice and
accurate information is imperative, especially when they get to leadership.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to fail, the only way you can learn and even get those
big wins on the board is by trying first. Great ideas come from learning from
If you hadn't spent all these years at ATPCO, where in the
industry would you have liked to work? Or perhaps nowhere in it all?
I was fortunate enough to spend 16 years at both Lufthansa
and Amadeus before ATPCO. Having worked at one of the world’s leading airlines,
leading systems and now ATPCO, I feel lucky to have had experience and insight
across the aviation and distribution landscape.
Actually, I didn’t join the airline industry out of fascination for
aviation. Firstly, I was looking for a
premium employer and secondly – I was at the time recently married to my
Spanish wife and back then there were no LCCs so I
thought that the flight privileges would help to manage my travel budget! Once
in the travel industry my love and admiration grew and, in particular with ATPCO I enjoy the community
aspect and the mission to serve the industry.
More from our In The Big Chair series...
PhocusWire talks to leaders across the digital travel landscape.