Artificial Intelligence (AI), mobile, omni channel travel platform, travel consumerism and NDC. Each can stake a claim to dramatically affect the way in which business travel products are distributed and consumed. But how near are we to achieving that Utopian future?
NDC (or New Distribution Capability) is a standard developed by IATA to enable everyone involved in distributing content, from airlines to travel management companies and online booking tool providers, to speak one technical language and give travel buyers access to a wider range of products within a single transaction.
Linked with the intuitive, Amazon-style shopping experience enabled by Artificial Intelligence, NDC opens up a world of opportunity for personalized products and fares. But maybe not yet.
Great concept. The problem is that corporate buyers believe not enough airlines are NDC ready and capable of adopting the standard just yet, despite IATA setting the ambitious target of major carriers making 20% of indirect sales via NDC channels by 2020.
Travel managers say everything through the NDC channel takes too long and that they have to become experts to get the content they want. NDC also places a great deal of power in airlines’ hands at the expense of corporate. Airlines regard travelers rather than travel buyers as the customer and therefore aim to up-sell to those travelers, thereby breaching travel policy.
NDC technology still has some way to go if the promise of greater personalization is to be realized. Airlines’ own systems and their ability to provide content varies, and whilst NDC may work for point to point flights now, business travel demands connectivity.
Business travel buyers need to be able to verify that the lowest fares are just that. The potential for creating personalized and non-personalized fares doubles choice, but also doubles the management required. NDC may work, but not in the way it needs to work.
Alongside NDC in any discussion around travel distribution is the term omnichannel. This refers to the technology that enables travel buyers (and travelers) to view price comparisons and customer reviews before making informed travel choices.
It’s easy to confuse omnichannel and multi-channel distribution. The key difference is that the former offers a totally consistent customer experience across those channels. In multi-channel distribution the channels rarely interact with each another.
Today’s consumers demand multiple touch points with a supplier and expects to interact online, via social media or on their mobile device, seamlessly. A traveler should be able to start a search on their mobile device, continue on their laptop and book on a desktop. The challenge to travel brands is to satisfy demand for content that is consistent across all channels.
Omnichannel also offers the potential of reducing friction to the point that booking business travel could become as simple as Amazon’s one click buy. Another big move forward, accepts the GDS technology that powers most business travel transactions cannot bundle or unbundle the content to create that seamless experience.
Despite some airlines adopting a bullish approach, the technical issues are taking time to click. The GDS providers have introduced rich content and graphical user interfaces, but retain the Electronic Data Interchange for Administration, Commerce and Transport (EDIFACT), codes and green-screen technology limiting airlines to 26 fare codes displayed through online booking tools and reservations systems. One industry commentator likens this to ignoring the rest of the plumbing which is entirely reliant upon a GDS passenger name record.
PNRs were created by the airlines and are the essential link between the GDS and airlines' operational systems. They give TMCs access to itineraries and other critical data such as schedule changes, baggage tracking and the processes that get a wheelchair to the right gate at the right airport. Itinerary elements booked outside a specific channel generally cannot be re-integrated back into the itinerary and therefore cannot be managed by the TMC.
Forward-thinking TMCs recognize airlines want to have a bigger say in how their products are sold. Consequently, they are looking to invest in technology that does not rely on a PNR. All three major GDS providers have committed to NDC, which will allow TMCs and online booking tools to display special branded fares, bundles and content.
It remains to be seen who will hold the balance of power between the travel providers, the GDS, TMCs and corporate travel buyers in the an omnichannel world. Ultimately, however, the key to that world lies in addressing the constraints of the PNR.
Travel managers need to have confidence the technology deployed to handle their transactions is robust enough to manage the added value benefits they negotiate on behalf of their travelers, such as priority boarding. NDC aims to enable this, but is unlikely to be the sole standard for distribution to the business travel market