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n the years since IATA kicked off NDC standard design in 2012, the three major GDS operators have gone from foes to friends, from wary to won-over.
      Moving beyond NDC’s contentious roots, Amadeus, Sabre and Travelport have embraced it. IATA has certified each as NDC aggregators. The three major GDS operators have sundry pilot programs with airlines and agencies, and even some live NDC transactions. This year, each is making progress on respective road maps to bring NDC to life in their channels for agency customers, through desktop applications used by agents and Web services adopted by online booking tools as  well as online travel agencies.
      The GDSs are the preferred avenue for TMCs to shop and book NDC content. It’s telling that each of the 30 TMC respondents plans to access NDC content through a GDS in the next 12 months.
      “The TMCs have made it clear they want the GDSs as the aggregator,” said Michael Strauss, CEO of Pass Consulting Group, which consults with agencies on software and IT. “The GDSs will be in the mix in the future simply because the TMCs want them to be in the mix.”
      American Express Global Business Travel, BCD Travel, CWT and other large corporate agencies have confirmed working with GDSs to shape, develop and test NDC distribution and workflows.
      It will take some time.
      “We are still, from a functional point of view, two years away from providing the same level of richness on this solution as we have on the GDS,” Amadeus president of travel channels Decius Valmorbida said in May.
      The world’s largest TMC, Amex GBT, likes to say NDC stands for “Not Direct Connect.” As such, it plans to tap GDSs for NDC content, not build its own connections.
      NDC doesn’t quite fit a narrative of “GDS versus direct connect,” said Amex GBT director of content and distribution John Bukowski. “We see it as fare-filing/ATPCO versus API distribution, and it’s not really either/or. You don’t have to pick one and go down that path. The best path is to combine both of those together. Maintaining that dual pipeline will be important. That’s why we’re partnering with the GDSs and partnering with the airlines to figure out how to bring that to scale.”
      Late last year, CWT SVP of global network and technology partners Vince Chirico said the mega TMC prefers to lean on the GDSs for NDC content. While “not the sexy answer,” he said, “our preferred channel will continue to be the GDSs. We see them as the only technology partners that can build a full end-to-end solution with response times that are acceptable for us and that we can plug into our back office in an efficient and scalable manner.”
      GDS technology is sticky. Lots of TMCs have built shopping, booking and data access workflows on these systems. It’s tested, reliable.
      “We can bemoan the GDSs and the way they look and how old-fashioned they appear to be, but this is a technology that transacts billions of transactions a year, that gives us sub-second search returns, that queues things intelligently and is the very heartbeat of some of our businesses,” said Pat McDonagh, CEO of U.K.-based TMC Clarity Travel Management. “There’s a reason why it’s hard to replicate some of those things.”

GDSs Reign As NDC Content Aggregators Of Choice
During the next 12 months, through which of the following mechanisms does your TMC plan to access airline content that aligns with the NDC standard?

      If GDS technology is sticky, the commercial model may be stickier.
      In traditional distribution, an airline pays a booking fee to the GDS, which in turn shares an incentive with the agency. GDSs often include booking thresholds in terms with agencies. TMCs get per-segment cash incentives when they meet commitments. They face penalties when they underperform.
      This makes agencies wary of shifting bookings to non-GDS sources.
      “There’s a whole bunch of considerations,” said one TMC exec speaking on background while contemplating how to access NDC content. “If we took all of the airline content outside the GDS, that screws up our GDS relationships. There’s a lot there we have to balance.”

Online Booking Systems: Next In Line


fter the GDS, that other hallmark of travel management technology—the online booking tool—is the second-leading source through which TMCs expect to access NDC content: 73 percent of respondents planned to do so in the next year.
        As the GDSs work to surface NDC content in agent desktop applications, online booking tools also are figuring out how to cope with the complexity NDC brings to their systems and for their users.
        They have plotted different courses on NDC content access.
        Self-booking tool providers “are taking a different direction on whether they’re using a third-party aggregator, whether they’re using a direct API or whether they’re doing anything at all” to access NDC content, BCD Travel EVP of global supplier relations and strategic sourcing Rose Stratford told The Beat in November 2018. “From that standpoint, it’s a little more fragmented on the OBT side.”
        One huge corporate booking player, SAP Concur, has leaned on aggregator Travelfusion to bring in carrier content piped on the NDC standard. Once GDSs are up and running, that could be a content source, too.
        Meanwhile, Serko’s Zeno has become the first online booking tool to achieve NDC certification from IATA. Zeno directly pipes NDC content from Qantas in Australia and New Zealand.
        Serko CEO Darrin Grafton said that Zeno will source airline content from a blend of sources, “whether it’s the GDS or a direct channel.”
        Beyond the question of where to source NDC content, online booking tools also must grapple with how to display it. If NDC delivers on offering richer content, personalized fare offers and an expanded set of ancillaries, these tools must make sense of this complexity in displays.

Strong TMC Majority Views NDC Positively
Do you view the NDC standard as a positive development in airline distribution?

Aggregators: Stopgap Or Competing Source?


MCs have other options to access NDC content. IATA has accredited two dozen NDC aggregators at some level, according to its NDC registry. They include the three major GDSs and a few local-market distribution systems like China’s TravelSky and Russia’s Sirena Travel.
        There’s a smattering of other aggregators, too, like AirGateway and Travelfusion.
        The largest, Travelfusion, sees the ranks growing. “We used to have three competitors that we considered to be around,” said CEO Moshe Rafiah. “We now have 15 to 17.”
        Large online travel agencies, TMCs and corporate booking tools already use Travelfusion to access NDC content from full-service carriers.
        Among them, CWT confirmed using Travelfusion to access some Lufthansa Group content outside of GDSs. BCD Travel also has looked to non-GDS aggregation to get such content.
        Travelfusion began as an aggregator of low-cost carrier content. That still is the bulk of its aggregation business, but NDC bookings are on the rise. Rafiah claimed         Travelfusion handled 100,000 NDC bookings in April. Further, he claimed, NDC transactions via Travelfusion were growing 20 percent month over month.
        “We have 42 agencies that are live with us on NDC, and we have 32 live NDC carriers that are available,” he said in May. “Because of our content coverage, which is immediately available today and proven, we’ll go live increasingly with both TMCs and corporate entities on the online booking tool.”
        Rafiah understands GDSs are “the comfort zone” for TMCs.
        Some TMCs like BCD position non-GDS aggregation as a stopgap to get content they need now.
        Some TMCs see the role of the non-GDS aggregator lessening in the corporate space once GDSs get into full production. They say tapping aggregators disrupts workflows and adds cost to the agency.
        Further, several non-GDS aggregators like AirGateway and Travelfusion charge agencies to book NDC airline content. Some TMCs swallow the fee to get content not available through the GDS or to avoid surcharges that some large carriers have levied on GDS bookings, especially in Europe.
        AirGateway CEO Jorge Diaz doesn’t expect the airlines to deal on the same economic terms as in the past, “so this means that GDSs will need to reinvent their core business and, yes, start charging the travel agent for their sold segments.”
        If that prediction comes to pass, “We will be very happy to compete in pricing with them when this happens,” he said.
        Travelfusion’s Rafiah agreed.
        “When the GDS comes to [the agency] and says, ‘In order to get the Lufthansa Group content, you’ll need to pay us some money,’ and ‘These workflows will work in a different way,’ I think the gaps will start emerging and tension will start building,” said Rafiah.
        IATA has certified Atriis as an NDC aggregator. Yet, CEO Alon Meisels said aggregation is a minor facet of what Atriis does. The company builds agent point-of-sale and corporate self-booking systems for TMCs. It also builds connections to “the ecosystem of the travel agency,” including mid-office, back-office, profile and expense reporting systems, said Atriis chief revenue officer Omri Amsalem.
        Meisels said Atriis has built an “intelligent switchboard” that lets TMCs manage content from multiple sources, whether those are direct connections to airlines enabled by Atriis, non-GDS aggregators like Travelfusion or the GDSs themselves.
        U.K.-based TMC Gray Dawes uses Atriis technology and also has engaged with Travelport on NDC.
        “We’ve got a decision to make down the line,” Gray Dawes commercial director David Bishop said this year. “At the moment, we don’t know which is the best way. Is it taking the content directly through Atriis on direct connects, or is it plugging everything into the Travelport API?”

Direct Connect: For The Few


ewer than half of the TMCs respondents planned to build their own direct connections to airlines to get NDC content. Even the ones that did suggested they’ll cherry-pick.
“I have no interest in building out these NDC pipes for 280 airlines,” said Sarosh Waghmar, CEO of WTMC, a newer entrant in the TMC space. “I want to focus on the big boys, use the GDS for the rest and then bring it all into a beautiful global data warehouse.”
        Not all TMCs have the technology wherewithal to handle their own connections. That’s why most look to partners, either GDSs or aggregators.
        Yet, a few TMCs with proprietary booking technology for client travelers or their own agents have walked the direct path.
        Chicago-based AmTrav operates a proprietary self-booking tool and a homegrown agent desktop. It has its own data warehouse for booking data. As such, it relies on the GDSs largely for content. AmTrav is testing some NDC direct connections with U.S.-based carriers this year.
        “Like probably every other TMC, our preference is to get this from the GDS. That would be easier,” AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee said. “However, I’m extremely skeptical of the GDSs getting it right in the short or medium term. Because of that, we’re talking to most of the airlines and playing around with whatever they have through a direct connect.”
        Australia-based Corporate Travel Management hasn’t waited, either. CTM uses its homegrown aggregation and booking technology to connect. Home-market airline Qantas is confirmed.
        CTM also is “working closely” with Sabre, CTM founder and managing director Jamie Pherous told The Beat last year.
        “There’s still going to be a big gap between when the GDSs are going to be fully compliant,” he said. “We took the choice that we can’t sit back and wait. We’d rather be on the front foot.”
        Pherous still expects its GDS to remain CTM’s dominant source of airline content.

Airline Portals: Break In Case Of Emergency


everal airlines, including Lufthansa Group carriers and British Airways, have launched online portals targeted at travel agents to book and service NDC content.
        While just shy of half of TMC respondents expected to access airline content through such portals, those speaking with The Beat said this is suboptimal: Going to a separate website to shop and book a single carrier denies agents comparison shopping and takes them out of workflows.
        As such, many TMC agents use these sites on a limited, ad hoc basis, TMCs said.
        Wider availability of NDC content through more integrated channels should put a stop to this practice in corporate travel, some larger TMCs noted. Even the airlines operating such sites, including Lufthansa, say the portals are better suited for smaller agencies.

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