The debate around the messaging standard proposed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has generated more heat than light.
The standard, called the New Distribution Capability (NDC), is still being developed. It won't be released until late 2014, said IATA officials yesterday at the Computerized Airline Sales and Marketing Association (CASMA) conference in Las Vegas.
A shape-shifting beast
It's difficult to pin down the NDC and discuss it because it's a work-in-progress.
Will the NDC include standards to support "authenticated shopping", which would tell airlines about the passenger (such as by pulling a passenger's frequent flier number)? Will it enable carriers to tailor offers based on personal attributes?
Or will it be more basic, "merely" updating to an XML-based language standard for communications between airline and travel agents and encouraging an API-based means of distribution?
NDC, as defined by IATA and fully supported by airlines, exists to create schema to support shopping, authenticated or not. Yet its full contours are being debated, and authenticated shopping is the holy grail for some airlines. (See analyst Henry Harteveldt's report.)
Screenshots of NDC-style booking
What will NDC-style booking look like for travel agents, especially ones managing corporate accounts?
Tnooz is posting below some screenshots that suggest an answer.
These images are not supplied by IATA. IATA is not building desktop applications; it is just pushing the NDC.
The flight-booking images below were instead supplied by one of the companies that could benefit from the adoption of the NDC: Farelogix, a Miami technology company.
Farelogix has for years built "direct-connect" distribution platforms, touting its ability to help airlines deliver their fares and schedules to travel agencies and corporations. Airlines like Delta and travel companies like Priceline have signed up for its technology.
One of the tools Farelogix has in production is SPRK, a user front-end being used by several agents today.
Farelogix wanted to show NDC-style flight booking. So it annotated screenshots of SPRK to illustrate how it could be used to sell ancillaries -- a key part of NDC-style booking.
NDC-style booking could include standard fares as you see them today:
NDC-style booking could also include standard fares from suppliers who haven't upgraded to the fanciest of technologies, assuming that NDC includes backwards compatability, as some stakeholders are hoping it will.
NDC-style flight booking could also include fare bundles, dynamically packaged fare content supplied directly by airlines alongside content supplied by GDSs.
The search results for each airline could be expanded or collapsed on the screen.
Hovering the cursor the label for each bundle reveals what's included, such as American Airlines' Saver, Select, and Premium bundles (offering fuller service options in exchange for more expensive tickets).
Real-time Corporate rates
Agents could use the system either by "authenticating" the shopper with a frequent flier number.
When a corporation negotiates a specific bundle, the airline's results are tailored accordingly.
Up-selling with ancillaries
If an agent is pricing out a trip for multiple passengers at the same time, he or she can ask the system for the cost of tickets including ancillary services. If he or she identifies the passengers by frequent flier status, the system will return relevant answers -- so a passenger whose status earns them free checked luggage rights won't be quoted a ticket that includes a fee.
Farelogix says on its blog that the choice of how much information to provide is left up to the agent or, in a consumer interface, the traveler. Here's an example of the exact same search as on the previous screen, only this time via "anonymous" shopping:
In Farelogix's words:
A central feature of the NDC standard is that the airline is able to provide a real-time, validated offer, including all ancillary services, to the traveler at the time of the search request.
This is because the offer is created by the airline itself and not by the intermediary.
Fear and loathing
Many agents, particularly travel management companies, dread paying for a technology upgrade that may not result in higher revenue.
Given that NDC is still in flux, IATA has been unable to estimate the costs to agents for upgrading.
If the NDC aspires for the more ambitious, "authenticated shopping" approach, NDC could be even more expensive for agents to adapt to, both in training time and cost.
Yet NDC-style booking might also earn agents more dollar volume in income if it enables airlines to offer more options to customers and to reach them seamlessly across distribution channels, including outside of the GDSs, as promised.
Footnotes and fine print
Some caveats about the screenshots posted here.
These images illustrate the capacity of SPRK, which already works according to the baseline for messaging standards that was adopted in February by IATA for NDC, namely, the Open AXIS Group specifications.
Farelogix generates an XML feed (a bit like Travelport's Universal API), and SPRK is an desktop application that's made friendly for agents to comprehend the fare content (a bit like Travelport's Universal Desktop).
So SPRK is a good approximation of what the most ambitious form of NDC-style flight booking -- the one with authenticated shopping -- might look like for travel agents.
Agents could use SPRK to sell flights and ancillaries, though as of today, customers have only signed up for the flight content.
One of Farelogix's partners is Lute Technologies, a Swiss company, which uses a customized version of Farelogix's SPRK that it has enhanced and configured for its customers, such as AERTicket, the largest airline ticket wholesaler in Germany. The system is used to issue tickets via B2C websites and agent workstations.
As of today, none of Lute's customers use the technology to sell ancillaries, one of the main appeals of adopting NDC-style systems. But Lute is using a production version of Farelogix's SPRK that works according to the baseline for messaging standards NDC has adopted.
But with those caveats aside, SPRK is one example of how NDC-style interfaces are in production today.
NDC or no NDC, the genie is out of the bottles, and agents will have a hard time getting it back inside. Airlines, GDSs, and third-party companies are putting into production these more dynamic systems.
For example, already today, Priceline displays American Airlines and United Airlines flights using the messaging standard espoused by Resolution 787.
In other words, Priceline can already display personally relevant seat choices, based on the frequent flyer status of the traveler, at the time of shopping (rather than waiting to recalculate at the end of the transaction).