Jim Davidson, Accelya
Jim Davidson was named CEO of Accelya in March 2022, following the sale of his company Farelogix to the airline technology provider in 2020.
As part of Accelya’s efforts to industrialize NDC adoption and modernize airline retailing with One Order, the company has just announced the establishment of a Center of Excellence, which will accommodate 500 technology leaders, domain experts and development talent.
Much has changed since your last Big Chair interview, which PhocusWire did in 2017. For one, your company was acquired, and now you’re CEO of that company. What are your top three priorities coming into this new role?
I've been with Accelya for about a year and a half. Because of the acquisition, I was playing a couple of different roles, mostly in the product area, and was really working on integrating the Farelogix company into the Accelya company. That's still probably one of my first priorities, to look at not just our company as a series of products, but look at our company as a platform provider that provides solutions.
It may sound like some subtle differences ... but I think airlines in particular are now more than ever post-COVID looking for solutions rather than just point products.
Airlines today, they're really looking for these solutions, and certainly some of the solutions do find their way into a single product, but more and more we're finding that the airlines are looking for a particular solution that may have a phase one to it, but also has an extended [life].
For example, we might get something as generic as, I want to engage with my customers in a better way. I want to align my products and services differently. We love hearing things like that, but we don't have a product called how to engage customers with products.
That's not a product that we have or frankly anybody has had yet. I'm trying to get the company to not necessarily look at this as a series of products, but look at this as how an airline can come into us on a solution. We'll actually put some products together for those airlines, because that's what we have, but part of that is setting them up for not just what they want today, but what they want for the future.
For me, the priority is making sure that our products are integrated so they can interoperate if an airline adds on, or if an airline wants to make sure, for example, that they want to create bundled products, but also they want to have help for them.
We do have two products that historically we've sold that allow airlines to bundle. Then we have a revenue accounting product, but the difference is the worlds change. So bundled products may or may not be ATPCO. How do you account for that? This is really my first kind of mission here at Accelya to align ourselves with where airlines are going. That's number one. Number two is to expand on this.
This gets into the Center of Excellence a little bit - expand on the concept of NDC. NDC has taken a long time to get off and it's had some starts and missed starts. But it really is conceptually, I believe the foundation for airlines - that's the springboard foundation for airlines to get into full digital realization with their customers.
It's where they control the offer. It's where they actually can put the data around an offer based on who a customer is. It really becomes foundational. My view is there's not nearly enough airlines that have adopted NDC in a meaningful way. A lot of people talk about adopting it, but our mission is we want hundreds of airlines, to adopt it in a real way, because it's a foundation.
We're working on some things to make it easier and faster for airlines to adopt and really get in and test it out in a meaningful way. So that's the second phase of it. The first phase is let's make everything talk to each other.
What we think is going to be the new world second phase is let's really get out there and get as many airlines as we possibly can experiencing NDC, and that interaction with our customers. The third thing, and what really sets us up for the future, is to really work with a couple of airlines and moving into One Order. And again, I look at it as a progression.
I see NDC as the necessary requirement to get into One Order. I think if you're not doing NDC, One Order ... doesn't necessarily work as easily as if you flow from an NDC to a One Order to a whole digital transformation. That's how we see this journey and the company.
What do you anticipate as your biggest challenges as the leader of Accelya?
There's a big what I'll call the practical challenge, and that is I have not met most of the people that work with Accelya. I'm very personal and upfront and passionate about working with the people. We have well over 2,000 of those people and frankly they're scattered all over the world. We have the biggest concentration in a couple of centers in India. We have Madrid, Barcelona, Miami, Dubai. We have a lot of people in a lot of different places. And while this technology is absolutely great for communicating, the challenge I want to figure out is how we innovate in terms of replacing where we were sitting in the conference room, drawing on whiteboards, and then breaking for lunch and on your way to the cafeteria that light bulb goes off.
That's one thing that COVID has taught us - if there's a simpler way to do it, let's find it.
Those are the challenges, and not just for Accelya, I think for any company, particularly technology companies, because a big part of what we do is we listen and then we have to think about what we just heard and the best way to do that is in a group of people where you can read each other and you can test ideas.
There's a geographical challenge, but there's, how do you stimulate the innovation when you have maybe not a lot of people coming back to the office, which I support, because I think that's where life is right now.
As a champion of the NDC standard from the beginning, what elements in its evolution would you say have gone well and not so well, and why?
There's still some controversy that floats around it. NDC we've done well with at Accelya, it's a big piece of our portfolio. It's a big piece of how we engage with our customers. I do think that, and overall in general, we've probably made it a little too complex from an industry point of view. The idea was you have a standard and that standard was probably, a little too interpretable if I could say that word. It wasn't a plug-and-play type of an application. I think that's where we're going to get to over the next year or so - that a new airline that wants to get in, we can be in a position to get them onboard very quickly.
Then they want to advance it like a number of our customers .... who can actually really decide how they want to frame their NDC going forward, all the features they want to add to it, the new content. But we really think we need to get out in the marketplace with a much more scalable, easy low barrier of entry for airlines to commit to the NDC family and get some experiences with it. Because it's a learning experience for them as well. I think we've done a lot of things right, but I think we should capitalize on what we did and really try to make things easier, simpler, maybe cheaper, less complex with NDC.
On a scale of one to 10, how advanced is the aviation sector with its digital transformation”?
Compared to the retail sector, we're probably in the first third, but if you compare it to where we were not that many years ago, considering that we had COVID in between, I think we're actually, we're in that mid-tier five, six range. I think what's keeping us from going to seven, eight, nine, 10 is we're still trying to make some of the older technology do things that it was never designed to do. I know I get on that horse and I ride it around a lot, but it's true. There's just a lot of technology that is making it much harder for us to do the things that when you look at some of the more modern retailing sectors, they figured it out.
We're getting there, the talk is there. This is why, back to the first question, I do think we have to get to the point where you have to go from some of the legacy technology around PNRs and multiple kind of transactions to get into the order management. That's really the first step into getting into retail. We're just kind of starting to get a picture of what that looks like. We are kind of where we were back in the early NDC days with that area around One Order and where we need to go, but I actually think that's gonna accelerate faster than NDC did, because the benefits with One Order and the order management system are probably far greater than NDC. Again, NDC is a vital component of it, but that really gives you the ability to engage customers throughout the whole journey. That's the big holy grail for the airlines, so they're going to be looking to companies like us to get them down there faster and not make the mistakes we did with NDC.
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In terms of what needs the most attention, and addressing these legacy tech concerns, how should airlines prioritize where they're at in the digital transformation?
There are a couple ways. One is the airline redefining how they want to engage in this digital transformation. And that starts with, frankly, plunking the customer right down in the center and having that drive those decisions. I think that's the biggest thing that has come out for me in the pandemic is historically we've always let the technology limit what we could do. And I'm not saying we're still not doing that because we are to some degree, but with the pandemic and the resurgence of the importance of the everyday customer, I think that has put a reset on the industry to really focus on how to engage that customer in a very different way, because that's the survival aspect of the airline industry, whether it's leisure and ultimately when corporate comes back.
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But I think there's a lot of learning to do in the next couple of years about how airlines expand their engagement with their customers. It's different, it's flexibility, it's security, it's convenience. It's a lot of those things that we didn't necessarily focus on as much, because we were looking a lot at the business traveler, where those things are important, but not as important. I think we're going to get some really good learnings out of what we do over the next couple of years and how we engage with all customers. I think there is gonna be a blending between whether it's a leisure or a business customer. Certainly there's time and chronological differences between when they book trips and things like that, but in terms of how they want to be treated and how they want to have offers that are relevant, I think there's gonna be a real blurring between those lines.
What specifically are you aiming to accomplish by establishing a Center of Excellence?
When you go from product specific to more of a platform, we decided that the Center of Excellence would give us that focus, and it gives us a focus in a lot of different areas - we don't have to focus on one particular product. We can focus on the journey, and we can bring people in that may or may not have any industry experience. Part of the attraction to me of the COE is we're bringing a lot of really talented people into the organization who have maybe flown on an airplane, but that's about it in terms of their concept of aviation technology. But it really is about giving us that focus so we can be a little bit more agile.
We can engage with customers on pilots. We can do some of the things that normally are outside of a typical sales cycle, where somebody puts out an RFP and the sales team goes in and the product team goes in. This gives us an avenue to actually do a little more innovation, a little more invention, and a little more interaction with customers before selling processes. That's the real key for us, to really have a place that we can experiment and we can do some things, we can make mistakes and we can correct those mistakes and move on. It doesn't necessarily mean that we have to stop selling and stop doing some of the things we do every day, but we can focus on kind of always looking to that north star.
That's what the Center of Excellence is for Accelya - a place for us to really engage with airlines at a different kind of level, more on future. But again, the key focus is retail, digital journey, distribution, but big buckets, not necessarily just merchandising or not necessarily just one particular aspect of it, but it's the big piece of how airlines will start looking at that distribution in the long run, looking at customer engagement in the long run. I want people to be thinking about that, not thinking about necessarily building one particular product,
How will this idea of the Center of Excellence reverberate throughout the industry?
My hope is that that we will disrupt, but not necessarily for the sake of disrupting, because I do think what COVID taught us is we have some very complex systems out in the environment and some of those systems did not hold up well, particularly around refunds and exchanges and the flexibility of giving people the ability to cancel and rebook. I think we learned a lot about that. I think that now becomes kind of a baseline of really taking a look at those systems that didn't hold up as well, number one, and see if we can simplify those. Number two is let's look at the longer tail of that customer engagement -change is going to be a be part of how we interact with each one of us as customers.
We're gonna change our mind. We're gonna change different types of trips. We're gonna change things that we want versus things that we don't want. Historically, I don't think the industry's been particularly good at managing change. So part of what we need to do - and again, simplification is key when you have an order versus a PNR and EMDs and all this other stuff - you have to have processes around them that change, and that's what they fall apart. Whereas if you look at more like I'm in more of a retail experience, I've got shopping carts, I can put things in and out of those, I tend to look at everything as a service. I tend to look at a seat as a service, an extra leg room seat is just a different type of service than a seat without extra leg room.
I look at a fare as a service. I look at a piece of luggage as a service. You start from a technical point of view, look at all of these things in a common view of either a SKU like the retailing industry or as a service. Once you do that, you're not hung up on I need to refund this ticket and you start looking at services and the consumer just decided not to take that service. I'm making it very simple and it's not, but again, that's what we're basically telling the folks over in the Center of Excellence: Don't just look at what is happening today and try to modify that; look at how you would want to be interacting with that.
Look at it from a personal point of view, and that's a very different way to start building technology. I want people to be personally invested in how they develop and design these things. I think that's the biggest thing, we just have to simplify. That'll take cost out, that'll take time out, that'll take out an awful lot of what has really slowed us down over the years. That's one thing that COVID has taught us - if there's a simpler way to do it, let's find it, because nothing is going to be that predictable going forward.
With the benefit of hindsight, how do you reflect on the Sabre/Farelogix/Accelya saga now?
Look, when we were in the heat of the moment, both Sabre and Farelogix were working really, really hard to make that deal happen. And, you know, it didn't. The nice thing is I can look back and feel comfortable that we did everything we could do on both sides to try and make it happen, and it didn't. I made a lot of good relationships with what I call the new Sabre. The team there is very respectful and very comfortable with Farelogix. Those relationships are lasting,, but some things just didn't work out. It was a lot of hard work.
What trends in retailing have you seen emerging from the pandemic? What has changed and what’s here to stay?
I'm done predicting because I thought COVID was gonna be over in three months. I think what I have learned out of that is the need to stay positive, the need to be passionate, that even though there were situations that from a business point of view were extremely difficult, from a people point of view were extremely difficult, that the perseverance and the personalization of business is different now. I don't think that's going to change. I think we lost a little sight of that maybe before COVID. So that was slammed home to me in terms of how all of us depend on each other, whether it's family or whether it's business. COVID did not discriminate. I think that's probably the biggest learning I had out of it is stay the course, but understand there's more relationship in this business than maybe we once thought.
Other than the Center of Excellence, what’s next for Accelya?
I'll just say that the biggest focus around is what does the new world of One Order look like? I think we're calling a lot of things One Order, but to me that is really the new way of engaging airlines, engaging with our customers. We, as technology companies, really need to take that cue and not just look to what we think we can build for the airline, but what does the airline really need to service their customers, taking it from that point of view? That's where you're gonna hear us focusing. The other thing I'll say about the pandemic is it's not just the relationships, but we really did learn to listen to our customers, and that's key. They're telling us some amazing things about their experiences. As a technology company, that provides solutions to the airlines. The worst thing we could do is not listen to those nuggets because they're amazing.
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