Big Interview: NDC’s global rollout will accelerate aviation’s recovery from COVID

Big Interview: NDC’s global rollout will accelerate aviation’s recovery from COVID

Ludo Verheggen, Amadeus director of air content acceleration, believe NDC is just what the sector needs as it recovers from the pandemic

Iata’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) standard was conceived long before the devastating impact of a global pandemic on the travel industry was considered a real and present threat.

While its controversial birth and subsequent rollout has not precipitated the revolution its most vociferous exponents predicted, has COVID-19 set the scene for a rapid impact?

Madrid-based Ludo Verheggen, Amadeus director of air content acceleration, believe it has and that NDC is just what the sector needs as it recovers from the pandemic.

He spoke to Travolution about the advances Amadeus has made during COVID-19 and his hopes for the future as the standard achieves global rollout at scale.

Verheggen said: “We are convinced NDC will help to speed up the recovery. If anything the need for more efficient retailing and more tailored dynamic offerings has only increased during this time.

“Despite the disruption caused by COVID we have progressed very well and have put the technical foundations in place and have all the basic functionalities available now to scale NDC globally.

“We have kept our focus on NDC during the pandemic allowing us to keep working on laying the foundations. And what we have been seeing in the last 12 to 18 months is that it has clearly remained a priority for most of the players in the travel industry.

In December, Amadeus held an NDC advisory forum involving many airlines and travel seller partners coming together in an open session to discuss where NDC is in terms of the wider industry and how Amadeus can move it forward.

Participants were asked about the impact COVID has had on their plans and 95% confirmed that they very much felt that the industry was still pursuing NDC as a way forward for travel retailing and 100% confirmed it was a strategic priority for them,” Verheggen said.

Creating a more dynamic and responsive distribution environment 

“What a lot of people in the industry have realised is that there is a very strong need to create a much more dynamic distribution environment where it much easier and faster to adjust to what’s happening outside of the industry.

“It’s clear what NDC will enable is this more dynamic environment that will allow airlines to react much quicker with their offerings, with their pricing to make specific bundles available with added flexibility, which will be even more sought after in the current times.

“Also, it will allow the exchange, in real time of much more and richer information and allow airlines to communicate much more clearly in the indirect channel the measures they are taking to create a safer travel experience and the latest destination information.

“We have also seen, with COVID, the need for more efficient servicing of bookings is more important than ever due to all the changed in schedules happening and as travellers feel less secure and need to make more last minute changes.

“We have made good progress over the last 18 months from an industry point of view where the standard has evolved to support more use cases where there are last minute changes to flight schedules or flight information.

“We now have a solution which does allow all of the shopping opportunities in place in terms of supporting new fare types and bundles but we also have in place these very important servicing functionalities to make sure travel agents can offer post-booking management.

“We believe the combination of these two things has seen the acceleration of NDC initiatives. And added top that we have completed more and more agreements with airlines. Our NDC family is increasing all the time with agreements we have been signing with airline groups.”

The significance of NDC version 21.3 for global rollout 

Verheggen said Amadeus is still seeing different approaches and speed of rollout between airline partners, but he said the NDC standard was maturing and the forthcoming release of version 21.3 later this year is expected to be the most significant yet.

“We feel that this is the year we can start to really scale NDC on a global level. We started roll out of NDC to travel agencies in Asia Pacific and we have now covered 40 markets in which we have started to make NDC content available to partners.

“We have over 1,500 travel partners that are live and ready with NDC content. Our goal is that by the end of this year to have all travel sellers worldwide able to access NDC content in their existing Amadeus environment.

“We are making it available within the same platform as traditional GDS content and lowcost content to make sure that the travel agents, with one search have access to all fares.”

Will NDC become the dominant force in airline distribution?

So, with the many apparent advantages of NDC and the industry-wide focus on establishing it, does Amadeus see it eventually becoming the dominant channel, even persuading low cost carriers to use it and eventually consigning traditional GDS EDIFACT to the dustbin of history?

“In terms of total volume, traditional GDS is still dominating but the two are becoming active in parallel and we expect we will have a hybrid world for quite some time to come,” said Verheggen.

“We believe that NDC will bring new opportunities for distribution of low cost carriers through our platform. From a technology point of view low cost carriers have been distributing through XML connections for a long time.

“With NDC we can make a standardised XML connection available through which we can integrate los cost carriers and make their content available next to other airlines. And as owner of Navitaire [airline solutions] we can create a powerful technical integration with the Amadeus platform.

“Although we are making NDC content available within the same tools as travel agents have today, a lot of their quality assurance and duty of care processes, invoicing and mid- and back-office is built around GDS technology.

Moving on from green screen to graphical user interfaces

“What we have been working on with our TMC and leisure partners is how we can make sure they have all these processes and workflows adapted to the new content source because there are some technical differences. That’s still work in progress.

“The traditional GDS environment has been optimised to such an extent over decades that all of the processes and efficiencies that have been gained are very clear. It’s a very efficient environment. What we now need to recreate is as efficient, if not more efficient, processes in NDC.

“It’s also clear, as well as making sure their back office is adapted, that in the search and handling of content there are some very important differences. Travel agents today use green, or blue, screen for GDS activity with cryptic commands which are fast and get the information they want.

“Adapting NDC to a green screen environment is almost impossible to do and we would lsoe some of the advantages of NDC so we are making it available through a completely redesigned graphical interface that allows us to display much more information at once accessible by a single click.

“It does require some important changes in ways of working and in habits. We are working closely with our partners to make sure our graphical flow makes information easy to find and some agents are recognising that’s a very important advantage when it comes to selling ancillary services.

“Travel agents are recognising there are also some very clear benefits in terms of travel consultants really focussing on being a travel consultant and not so much on the technical side of how to manage the system.

“Having more dynamic and more visual information available at their fingertips will make agents more efficient and better travel consultants and that will open up additional opportunities.

“We have seen pre-COVID and during COVID that because of the standardising it brings to air distribution, NDC has opened up opportunities to new players. We have seen start-ups entering the scene wit new ways of processing and distributing content. That’s very good to see.

“If we want NDC to succeed, if we want the industry to invest, yes airlines need to invest from their side, but all parts of the industry need to invest.

“We, as a distribution platform sitting between airlines and travel sellers and corporates, are investing a lot of money in rebuilding the right technology which can make that content available within one platform to everything flows through in an efficient and standardised way.

“That’s the value we bring, but if we want to get adoption up we need to take advantage of the technological benefits NDC allows by creating new and intuitive content. We are now seeing good examples of airlines we are working with creating new corporate bundles tailored to needs.”

Verheggen said discussions with airlines and GDSs about full content deals and commercials will continue, but Amadeus’s intention is to ensure it makes the widest range of content available to travel agents because that is in the best interests of the consumer.

“The traveller and travel agent should be able to access all relevant content through the channel of their choosing,” he said. “That’s the way we create true efficiencies on a global scale. So we are very happy with the agreements we have reached in recent months with important airline partners.”