ANALYSIS: IATA bids to change perceptions of NDC

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Ever since IATA's New Distribution Capability was approved last October, barely a week has gone by without negative coverage appearing in publications reporting on the airline and wider travel industry. The latest bad headlines refer to comments made at the Advantage Conference 2013, which took place this month in Malaga.

Advantage is the UK's largest group of independent travel agents. Its 800 members turn over more than £3 billion ($4.57 billion) a year. Its members are at the front line of NDC and need to be onside.

However, headlines such as: "Agents fear new global distribution system [GDS] flight standard will lead to customer poaching"; "GDSs hit out at IATA's new distribution platform"; and "IATA under fire as GDSs hit out at NDC" indicate that IATA has a long way to go towards busting some of the myths it says surround NDC.

The consumer press is not helping IATA's cause either. The New York Times ran an editorial in March headlined: "Frequent fliers, prepare to pay more."

IATA would be the first to admit that there is a communication issue, and has opened up a number of channels for the many stakeholders in the NDC debate to have a platform. It is also using the conference circuit to engage across the board - with one commentator suggesting that having an IATA/NDC speaker on the agenda guaranteed fireworks.

Despite what appears to be a blanket rejection by everyone, IATA is proceeding with what its passenger director, Eric Leopold, calls "a project to modernise something which is 40 years old".

Key milestones have already been reached, Leopold insists, and the first look at how NDC might work in the real world will take place at IATA's World Passenger Symposium 2013 in Dublin at the end of October. The pilots, in turn, have been made possible by the publication of the schema - the technical specifications for NDC.

"We have 30 partners involved in the first pilot," Leopold confirms. "And attendees will be able to see it." He notes that Travelport's demonstration of its Aggregated Shopper product at the CAPA CEO Summit earlier this year was a good example of how seeing something in the flesh makes it easier to understand.

Travelport's Aggregated Shopper is similar to what NDC hopes to achieve, Leopold says. Travelport can now bring up EasyJet content, sourced from EasyJet's advanced passenger information data, alongside the traditional GDS content. Travelport is working with other airlines too, looking to close the gap between low-cost carrier direct and third-party distribution by allowing the airlines to retain control over their content while selling through an intermediary.

"Taking content directly from the 'airline.com' and putting it alongside other content for comparison is exactly what NDC will do," says Leopold, although his conciliatory approach towards Travelport is muted. "But of course [Aggregated Shopper] is not built using the NDC standard, so is not NDC-compatible." But EasyJet, of course, is not an IATA member and is not involved in NDC in any way.

Mindful that NDC was always a long-term project, Leopold acknowledges that "there is likely to be a first phase of pilots, followed by a second phase, and probably a third, which will be built using any improvements to the schema that emerge as a result of the previous pilots. It will be a continuous learning and improving process, bringing more content into NDC, but we are aiming to spend two years fine-tuning it".

IATA has also launched a dedicated blog about NDC. Perry Flint, IATA's head of corporate communications for the Americas, explains that the idea was "about letting the airline, agency and IT community know where all the relevant information is held, and give them the chance to comment".

He goes on to say this was not a direct media relations play: "Sure, we welcome media looking at the site, as a reference point for us to correct the numerous myths and misinformation that have been introduced into the debate."

IATA's myth-busting mission took place in the recent Airline Business Technology and Innovation in Airline Distribution conference in London. Leopold presented the purported myths and asked audience members who agreed with the assumption in each "myth" to explain themselves so that the "myth" could then be shattered.

It did not really work as a session, and Leopold noted at the time that the response in the room was subdued, relative to the noise in the marketplace. IATA has previously held discussions with certain organisations and individuals which have a disproportionate influence on the debate - specifically, the Business Travel Coalition (BTC).

Flint explains that BTC "is a for-profit firm that advocates on behalf of its paying clients, and although we don't know about any link for sure, the BTC stance is curiously aligned with Sabre".

Despite the broad-based opposition and claims to the contrary, the GDSs are feeling the NDC pain the most. Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus have all submitted official documents to the relevant authorities and are saying little, on the record at least.

Leopold suggests that the GDSs are not doing anything that other businesses in their position would not do. "For 40 years or so the GDSs have had a dominant position when it comes to distributing air content. With NDC, there could be 20 new businesses which could offer a similar service to travel agents. So while the airline industry welcomes competition, it looks like the GDSs are reluctant to do so."

All industries are currently exposed to the recent upsurge in interest about data and privacy, and it is slowly becoming a consumer news story rather than a geeky in-house debate. Leopold clarifies IATA's position on data and privacy: "Government regulation controls the data, not a technical standard. NDC doesn't change ­anything in terms of how airlines handle customer data, the same rules as before will apply. New standards do not change that."

He continues: "In the USA, IATA has antitrust immunity which obliges it to place resolutions such as NDC into the public domain. In Europe, there are a number of bodies with which IATA must liaise with over NDC - competition and privacy in particular but there are others. It is a part of our ongoing relationship with the legislators." This relationship covers IATA's entire brief, not just NDC.

Sabre has been the most vocal critic of NDC's privacy implications, exploiting the confusion over how much personal data travellers need to provide to the airline to get a price. Leopold refers back to the Travelport/EasyJet tie-up: "You don't need to give any personal data when getting a price from the 'airline.com' so why should it be any different with NDC?"

The furore surrounding NDC shows no sign of diminishing, and IATA should be given credit for sticking with a project for which its member airlines voted. Maybe IATA's case could be helped if some of the airlines that supported the initiative raised their heads above the parapet and were as vocal as those who opposed it.

The fact that there will be a real live pilot for IATA members to see in less than six months' time should not be overlooked. The pilots are being launched within one year of the project being announced, a development-to-implementation process of which the GDSs would be proud.