After years of hype and ambiguity, the promise of greater access to rich airline content is becoming more real for travel agents, who will find an expanded ability to personalize travel for their customers and strengthen relationships with airlines.
Airlines, large travel agencies and global distribution systems (GDS) have finally reached a tipping point as they initiate deployment this year of the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) New Distribution Capability (NDC), an Internet-based communications protocol that provides for greater flexibility in delivering fares and other airline inventory and enhances visual retailing.
For example, earlier this year Flight Centre Travel Group signed an agreement with Amadeus that will include designing and delivering NDC technology for its EMEA and Asia agents, covering 17 countries.
Flight Centre will help Amadeus create its new NDC-enabled solution for business and retail travel agencies. In a press statement, Amadeus said it is working with airlines “to define a solution that gives travel agents access to travel content using the NDC standard. The objective is to make NDC content easy to access and compare so travel providers and sellers can serve travelers simply, quickly and accurately.”
Also, Amadeus just announced that it has signed an agreement with Qantas to join its NDC-X program, allowing agents and other travel sellers to book NDC content alongside other travel content.
Industry has finally reached a tipping point
“For us, it was the end of last year when we saw the industry had reached an inflection point, a maturity level, about deploying NDC in reality into the market,” said Gianni Pisanello, Amadeus, vice president of the GDS’ NDC-X program, in an interview with Travel Market Report.
But that work was not translating into anything practical for travel agents, even as late as the end of last year, when Amadeus conducted a global road show with travel agents. “Agents had a growing awareness of NDC, that change was coming, but there still were a lot of things they didn’t understand,” he said.
Now, Amadeus is working with “a number of limited airlines and agencies to codesign” travel platforms for airline content to be accessed on agent booking tools.
Pisanello said 2018 will be “a year of design mostly,” with solutions “more massively available to airlines and large agencies early next year,” and broader deployment to the general travel agency population, including an agent graphical user interface (GUI) by the middle of next year.
Pisanello predicted a “slow and progressive pick up in 2019, a year where we will polish the rough edges on the solutions, so we are setting ourselves up for 2020, where there can be a real acceleration.”
Initially, Pisanello said, “the most simple flight options will be there.” But over time, as the airlines get more sophisticated in presenting things they can merchandise through travel agents, like airport lounge access, upgrades and other ancillary services, agents will see more “rich media, product descriptions, sales points, so the travel agency can communicate to the end traveler to really give an informed choice.”
Graham Turner, Flight Centre Travel Group managing director, said his company’s Amadeus agreement will allow the company to offer its customers “the widest, most relevant content possible.”
In the future, Pisanello sees other content being integrated by agents, like museum packages, “because the agent knows the customer better than the airlines and suppliers do.” He noted how the overwhelming majority of airline passengers only fly a carrier once every few years.
“I am convinced agents will remain relevant because travel will become more complex, and agents can provide that peace of mind of simplification,” Pisanello at Amadeus said.
That relevancy resides partly in the fact that agents touch customers more frequently than most suppliers do, therefore they will always know them better.
“That client who flew once on American the last three years, could have purchased through the agent five to six times during the same time, so they can do a better job to make the most relevant offer for them,” Pisanello said.
Richer content could mean richer agents
Speaking at a recent Bank of America technology conference, Rick Simonson, Sabre executive vice president and CFO, spoke about how the data Sabre collects through multiple digital touchpoints is providing airlines and agents with greater knowledge about travel research and booking behaviors. Combining that data with machine learning and NDC tools will empower airlines and travel agents.
“You log onto an OTA site, you log onto a metasearch site, or AA.com., any of those access points, and type in SFO to wherever. We know that instantly. You put in a date. We know that immediately, based on that itinerary, you probably are going to need a hotel. Are you going to do it with a hotel chain? Airbnb?
“We have data now that there are certain times in a person’s shop, book, travel [continuum], that they are more inclined to make decisions on certain up-buys, or up sales, than not. That’s all in the algorithms, the machines and the continuous learning, and then we deploy that in a way, in a user interface that allows the humans who interact [with clients] to provide that next touch.”
Airlines will become better retailers, too, Pisanello said, a point also made by Sabre’s Simonson. “Travel will not be exempt from the dynamics the Internet promotes for more direct selling. But it is the one who can provide consistent value on a high frequency basis who will be the most relevant to the consumer,” said Pisanello.
Tech advancements will impact airline passenger’s total experience
Technology will impact other elements of the traveler’s journey, especially at the airport, said Joe DiFonzo, Sabre's chief information officer, speaking at the same Bank of America conference.
He noted how previous airline passenger services were designed for airline employees and processes, and not the customer’s benefit. “It was all driven by the notion that there is going to be a person behind a terminal taking actions, at specific times, when the reality is it should be driven by the consumer, by the traveler,” DiFonzo said.
With the prevalence of smartphones and ubiquitous digital connections, airline passengers are connected to their carriers all the time, enabling the ability for modern conveniences like mobile check-in and gate change notifications. As a result, Simonson and DiFonzo predict more engagement between airlines and passengers at the airport.
“A lot of this stuff can be completely automated and made a lot more intelligent so that you get the right offers at the right time, or you’re told where to go. We are starting to get glimmers of that today,” DiFonzo said, “but we are just scratching the surface.”
Simonson predicts the elimination of airport check-in counters completely, calling them “a silly concept. We are already discussing with airlines … there is going to be no such thing as check-in as we know it.”