Throughout our NDC eBook, we’ve gone from establishing a base understanding of airline retailing to sharing key steps to getting started in your own organization. It’s time to hear how others in the industry are preparing for and implementing NDC solutions.
For our fifth and final eBook chapter, we have interviewed key partners in the Sabre Beyond NDC program to highlight their unique perspectives. You will hear directly from IATA NDC leaderboard airlines and leading global agencies about their approach and preparation for NDC, and how Sabre is partnering to make that a reality in the near future.
We uncovered several themes during our conversations that helped us see that we’ve all been going through the same steep learning curve during the past few years and have similar needs for scalable solutions that support the hybrid content world. Some see NDC as an evolution of what they’ve been working toward for years, and others see it as an opportunity to remove pain points of the past.
Ultimately, we all agree that there are no siloed solutions for NDC. It will take all players in the travel industry working together to achieve the success NDC is poised to deliver. Take a few minutes to hear about it from our partners, Q&A style, in their own words:
- Neil Geurin, American Airlines, “An NDC evolution, not a revolution”
- Blaine Stanga, Carlson Wagonlit Travel, “Leaning in to develop scalable NDC solutions”
- Charlene Wee, Singapore Airlines, “Partnering to drive NDC scale”
- Thane Jackson, BCD Travel, “NDC implementation begins with education”
- Kalle Immonen and Heidi Pajari, Finnair, “Removing pain points of the past”
An NDC evolution, not a revolution
Neil Geurin, Director of Distribution Strategy, American Airlines
American Airlines is not starting from scratch when it comes to NDC. It’s an evolution of a retailing strategy they have been working on for the past decade. A strategy that’s proven success in the direct channel, but with NDC, is evolving to place more focus on distribution and agency servicing. At American Airlines, the opportunity NDC solutions present in the future is ultimately a transformed customer experience.
Neil Geurin shares his perspective on how technology and NDC play a role in the retailing evolution.
Sabre: When your organization said, “We need an NDC strategy,” what were some of the first steps you took to achieve this goal?
Neil: I’ll be honest, that’s a hard question for me to answer because American was working on something that looks like NDC before NDC existed. We’ve known for a long time that we need a better way to market our products and services to customers. Growth in our direct channel has come of that, but we also recognize that we work with thousands and thousands of travel agencies and need to empower them to do the same. The goal all along was to get to a point where we could do more than just sell a fare through a travel agency.
Sabre: In that process, did the organization evolve internally?
Neil: The Distribution team has always worked closely with partners across the airline like our revenue management and sales teams, but a few years ago we moved the team into the sales strategy organization to allow for a deeper level of collaboration. The distribution team itself has grown quite a bit over the years. We now have more than 30 people working on distribution every day – much larger than the team we had in place five years ago. We’ve needed more manpower, and we’ve gotten a lot closer to the business units most impacted by NDC and other distribution matters.
Sabre: Despite the increased focus and alignment around NDC in the industry, what challenges still exist today?
Neil: In early 2018, we reached a point of alignment across the entirety of the industry with the agency, the airline, the GDS and the technology partners involved. Even though we’re at that point, that still leaves a lot of unanswered questions about how NDC works in a servicing capacity and how NDC works when we drive it up to full scale. All those questions are still outstanding.
Our thinking is that there have been 100 questions about NDC over time, and we’ve answered them collectively as a group, one by one by one. The more people we have involved, the more voices we have at the table, the better those answers will be. We expect that over time, we’ll be able to solve these last remaining use cases around NDC and really take it to the next level.
Sabre: Describe the customer experience in an NDC world.
Neil: It changes over time, but the early-day customer experience means getting access to bundles of products and services at any customer touchpoint. Whether that’s in the booking tool or standing in a line at an airport to change a ticket. Soon, all of that can be coordinated through NDC into a product that’s available to customers across all channels. Sabre’s strategy will not only enable that personalization for us, but it is robust enough to consider use cases that span the customer journey.
Longer term, we constantly hear from Amazon and Google about the big push toward voice search and voice transactions. Right now, that’s hard to imagine in an airline space where, if you’re looking at a flight from Dallas to New York, there are 25 options and all kinds of different products and services within to communicate. By utilizing customer data, we can micro-segment offers and make voice much more feasible. Then, if you have a customer who’s flown four times over the last year on that route and she typically flies first thing in the morning and always buys Wi-Fi, when she says, ‘Hey, Google, tell me about flights from Dallas to New York,’ we just tell her about the ones that are most relevant based on her historical purchases. It will take a while for us to get there, but we need the supporting offer-management technology in place now to make it real in the long run.
Leaning in to develop scalable NDC solutions
Blaine Stanga, Senior Director for Global Supplier Management, Carlson Wagonlit Travel
For a global travel management company the size of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the primary focus for its NDC endeavors is scalability. Designing an NDC solution for a single agent to book a flight is one thing. Designing one that can handle multiple agents booking and possibly rebooking thousands of travelers at the same time is another.
Blaine Stanga shares how these concerns are being addressed, his thoughts on the hybrid world of content and future accreditation levels.
Sabre: What are your thoughts about getting NDC content into the travel marketplace?
Blaine: The challenge with NDC is there’s the ability to publish content through a channel to shop it, to book it and to pay for it, but there’s a lot more that needs to happen beyond that. We spend a lot of time educating suppliers and our people internally on the complexity and scale of our processes. There’s a lot to learn about what it takes to sell a product and all the other work that goes on behind the scenes to do that. It’s not just a book it and forget it situation.
I used to be concerned about investing all this time, energy and money. Would there be enough content distributed through an NDC channel to justify that investment? I think in the last year, it has become more apparent that we’ve got enough momentum behind this.
Sabre: What, from your viewpoint, still needs to be solved from the technical side?
Blaine: We’re continuing to identify gaps in the solution and are developing new solutions to help us meet the needs of business travel. We need to get the most relevant information in front of our travel counselors as quickly and as efficiently as possible. Will the performance be there? Will the solution scale? For example, if there’s a big snowstorm, our agents are having to rebook thousands of travelers and that’s having to float down to airline systems. Are their support systems going to be able to handle that? These are concerns, but I think, as an industry, we will solve them.
Sabre: During the last six months, how have conversations changed with your airline partners driving toward alignment?
Blaine: Our airline partners are helping drive the conversation. They understand the complexity of the solutions we offer to our corporate customers. You cannot replicate the workflow of an airline or OTA website where somebody just comes, books a ticket.
Sabre: There are some airlines that are sitting back, hoping to take advantage of that last-mover standpoint. What would your advice be for agencies doing the same thing?
Blaine: I think it’s going to be very difficult for those agencies to compete. Carlson Wagonlit is taking the position that we want to be a leader in the market. Customers are going to demand it. They like the customization that’s available from NDC. If agencies can’t offer rich NDC content and related new products, it’s going to put them at a serious disadvantage.
Sabre: Your role is managing the relationship with the GDSs and ensuring that they’re powering your NDC strategy. How are technology providers helping power that?
Blaine: Sabre is a very important strategic partner to CWT. It has the ability to bring an NDC solution to market at scale. When you look at the complexity of managing multiple connections to multiple airlines, banishing the access rights to all those airlines … the GDS is probably in the best position to do that. Right now, we don’t have any desire to build 30 or 40 connections to different airlines and have them manage those connections. That’s not where our strength is, that’s what Sabre has done for years.
The ability to scale, the ability to offer a reliable, robust solution … that’s what we’re looking for Sabre to provide.
Sabre: What do you think about the further accreditation levels that have been talked about through IATA? Do you feel they will address your concerns?
Blaine: I’m absolutely hopeful for that. My main concern with NDC remain scalability. Can you support multiple users across multiple regions, perhaps managing the same booking? How do you handle security and trusted users? The next accreditation level takes solutions to the next level to determine if they will work in a demanding, high-performance call-center environment. Absolutely, that next level of accreditation is needed.
Partnering to drive NDC scale
Charlene Wee, Manager of Distribution, Singapore Airlines
The commercial team at Singapore Airlines is laser focused on driving NDC adoption. They are backing up their commitment as a leaderboard airline with a new organizational structure, bringing all commercial teams under the same senior vice president. Outside of its own organization, they realize agency adoption is key. For their team, it’s not just about distributing NDC content, it’s about partnering with GDSs, such as Sabre, which makes consuming this rich, new content easy and valuable.
Charlene Wee discusses the importance of agency partnerships to drive NDC scale and the critical role the GDS plays.
Sabre: As a leaderboard airline, what advice do you have for airlines and agencies that are just starting their NDC journey?
Charlene: I would stress the importance of changing your approach to conversations with agency partners to have a very clear direction on what value you are bringing. It’s not just about telling them, “Take my NDC content,” because nobody is going to do that. If you can demonstrate that you are providing better value and better content, whether it’s better discounts or tailored offerings, through this new channel, it’s easier for agencies to take in the new content.
For agencies, particularly in Asia-Pacific, it’s critical for them to stay active in industry forums to deepen their understanding of NDC and learn from how their global counterparts are leveraging this new form of distribution.
Sabre: What’s your approach to building dynamic, tailored offers in the indirect channel?
Charlene: We are currently developing a new merchandising platform that will power the different merchandising capabilities we will be rolling out– things like promo codes, discount levels and tailored offerings. We’ve made the conscious decision that only NDC content will be powering these new offers, which will allow us to more easily benchmark performance of NDC versus traditional content.
Sabre: What does the ideal end state look like in the next five years?
Charlene: In the next five to six years, we really want to activate ONE Order, because it will transform the current way of distributing content. NDC is just a start. It allows us to facilitate the entire journey with current industry players, but ONE Order is really the end state that breaks down barriers into our industry for new players like Amazon and Facebook … companies that don’t have any idea what electronic tickets and Electronic Miscellaneous Documents (EMDs) are.
We see the future state of distribution to facilitate partnership across brands. It’s not just about us distributing our products. We want to co-create and consume partner offerings and sell those on our platforms as well. Ideally, it’s a cohesive collaboration between brands and partners.
Sabre: Until we reach that ideal end state, we’re going to be in a hybrid world. How do we expedite that process?
Charlene: This is where I see the GDS and players like Sabre to be key. There are only a certain number of things airlines can do on their own. Can you imagine us going to 1,000 different partners and setting up 1,000 different connections? It’s not possible or scalable. Once we have the GDSs on board, you have connections to thousands of players out there. It’s just about switching on the pipe.
Sabre: How will you measure the success of the GDS in enabling this type of content?
Charlene: It’s not just the indirect channel. We are targeting to achieve at least 50 percent of sales on the NDC API channel by 2020. That’s direct sales through our website and our mobile app, plus indirect sales flowing through the API. At that point, we feel like we will have achieved scale, changed the distribution landscape at Singapore Airlines and can pursue ONE Order and further initiatives.
Sabre: How does Sabre’s Beyond NDC strategy enable Singapore Airlines’ vision?
Charlene: Sabre’s approach is very different compared to the other GDSs and, we believe, more scalable. The key aspect is that it requires less changes to the agency workflows, driving higher adoption. We want to be a part of making NDC a reality by helping facilitate between the airlines and agents. If we do things in a way that would drive agency adoption, then we are happy to understand how the workflows should change on our side.
Ultimately, it’s not just us wanting to distribute NDC content, it’s about us partnering with agencies to consume all this rich, new content.
NDC implementation begins with education
Thane Jackson, Vice President of Global Distribution and Channel Strategy, BCD Travel
BCD Travel is an industry leader that has been preparing for NDC for years. While there has always been a focus on global distribution at BCD, one of the first steps toward NDC preparation and implementation began with the creation of a new role that focused on monitoring emerging distribution trends. Along the way, the team found there is a steep learning curve involved with NDC, and it must start within the organization before looking outward to implement the necessary changes.
Thane Jackson shares his experience and advice on implementing NDC within the organization.
Sabre: What types of internal changes have been made at your organization to prepare for a global NDC strategy?
Thane: Actually, we started preparing for it five years or so ago. The first change was the creation of my role, which wasn’t 100 percent directly related to NDC, but it was related to distribution overall and the changes we saw coming. We’ve always had people running global distribution, but we needed someone watching for emerging trends. For airlines and other organizations looking to implement NDC, having someone focused on this is key.
Sabre: Let’s talk about the amount of education that took place within your organization.
Thane: Our education not only extends to our own people, but also our airline discussions have changed. It’s common knowledge that we have relationships with most major carriers in the world, and those are managed by our supplier relationship managers. We’re having to educate them on elements of distribution, which gets quite technical, but we’re having those conversations so our own people understand more. Beyond that, we’re having to educate our airline partners, because it now starts with a distribution team that used to be hidden in the background in an airline. Then, those people are educating their people, who then educate the next level, and so on.
Sabre: On the buyer’s side, how are you educating your customers as well?
Thane: The distribution team gets pulled into every NDC-related question and client meeting. That’s a good thing because at least we’re talking from a position of some relative knowledge. We conduct webinars, we produce our own material that gets disseminated through our account managers. There is an intensive amount of activity around education, which has been absolutely the single biggest challenge in the last three years.
If I look back in time, I probably would have employed two or three people purely on that education piece three years ago.
Sabre: With the influx of the NDC content coming, how do you see the GDS positioned in that world?
Thane: We’ve said since the beginning of the noise around NDC that the answer to this is going to come through the large IT organizations within the industry. By that, I mean Sabre, your peers and your competitors. In terms of scale and solving the level of complexity, we’ve always said that the GDS is going to solve that.
Sabre: How do you think that NDC content will look? Are you clear on what type of experience that will be for the traveler?
Thane: From an agency perspective, we’re clearly interested in what the traveler experience will be. We’re also interested in how it will look, because there are two elements: 1) what the corporate travel managers and the travelers that they represent want, and 2) what travel management companies need to have to deliver that.
There’s a strong feeling in parts of the marketplace that NDC is very disruptive to corporate travel polices, and a lot of travel managers aren’t onboard yet. But there’s a lot of pressure from the airlines to deliver it. They can offer a lot of personalized, rich content on their websites and mobile applications today and want that kind of functionality available through every channel. Yet, so far, there isn’t a clearly articulated solution. There’s a bit of a gap between what people are expecting and what is reality.
Sabre: What additional comments do you have regarding NDC?
Thane: I would say don’t believe the myths. Don’t believe the myth that NDC is all about direct connect. That’s just an option, but for most organizations, it’s not a realistic way to think about it. Also, don’t underestimate the complexity involved in solving this. Ask questions. There are many other aggregators and IT companies springing up who will tell you, “It’s simple. We’ve got the APIs. We can connect you to 50 airlines tomorrow.” Don’t believe that myth either. That’s a multimillion-dollar undertaking to truly provide some level of complete connectivity that allows you to book for full service, interlined to all the things that you can do through GDS.
Removing pain points of the past
Kalle Immonen, Head of Merchandising and Distribution, Finnair
Heidi Pajari, Business Development Manager, Finnair
The commercial team at Finnair is aligned around a common retailing and distribution strategy. NDC has not only changed its organization internally, but it has impacted conversations with agency and technology partners. While they are still working with GDSs to remove pain points of the past, they aren’t not stopping there. Finnair is thinking beyond traditional agency channels and has already completed a chatbot pilot that brings rich content to travelers in places they don’t expect today.
Finnair’s Kalle Immonen and Heidi Pajari provide insights into the airline’s goals and advice for other carriers that are just getting started.
Sabre: How did your organizational structure change to align around a common retailing and distribution strategy?
Heidi: As you know, NDC is just the messaging standard. Behind that, we need clever decision-support and offer-management systems that will help us build offers. New offer- and order-management teams are thinking not only about price, but the content, too. The creation of these teams was critical to ensuring our merchandising strategy lays the foundation for our NDC journey.
Sabre: How do you look to your technology partners to power your retailing strategy?
Kalle: The GDSs have a big role in this transformation – ensuring we have the right merchandising tools and adding aggregation. Take Beyond NDC, for example.
Sabre’s approach does not just copy and paste the existing environment and make it NDC. It challenges us to rethink current processes and pain points.
Could NDC potentially solve existing pain points? What can we do differently, so we don’t carry those same pain points to the new world? We should partner to remove those pain points in the new world and create a much more simplified and user-friendly environment for travel agencies.
Heidi: NDC will also open possibilities for completely new players that are not traditional travel agencies, to sell airline content. We look to technology providers to enable us to bring airline content to travelers in places that they don’t expect to see today.
Sabre: What new channels are you looking at as part of your omni-channel strategy?
Kalle: One of the first pilots we completed was a chatbot – the first chatbot in the world using NDC-enabled technology – that sat in the Finnair Facebook platform. It knows how to answer frequently asked questions and can assist in adding services to your booking. You can also buy flights through it, so those new players that we haven’t considered in the past can buy the flights using a robot. While there might be immediate questions around NDC in the short term, it’s apparent that it does set the stage for future capabilities in a positive way.
Sabre: What aspect of NDC do you think is the most overlooked in terms of education?
Kalle: There are back-office processes that are not investigated by airlines because they are not familiar with all those processes. So, I think it’s very important as an airline to be part of working groups where we can influence how the standard is developed with all the key players. This way we take into consideration agents’ needs because we have a very clear omni-channel strategy and need the help of travel agencies now and in the future. So, it’s very important that they are taking part in industry forums to discuss their pain points and jointly work out the resolutions.
Sabre: What advice would you have for airlines and agencies that are sitting back and watching?
Heidi: Get on board, explore, trial, pilot.
Kalle: I agree and would add, ask questions. Now is the perfect opportunity to influence what the future will look like. It’s important to get involved and just start with small steps, acknowledging that this transformation will take some time. The industry is on this journey together, so we need cooperation and open ways of thinking to make this a reality.
Many thanks to all the Sabre Beyond NDC program partners who took the time to speak with us about their NDC strategy, how they are implementing NDC, and what we need to solve together as an industry. The conversations continue in this video, which shares perspectives from more of our customers who are working to implement NDC within their organizations. As we all know, these changes won’t happen overnight, but they are happening and the pace is accelerating every day with airlines, agencies and technology providers. It’s an exciting time for the travel industry, and conversations like these demonstrate how we are collaborating to bring NDC to life.
Thank you for taking the time to read our NDC eBook, NDC to the Power of Sabre. We’ve covered NDC basics and their impact on all areas of our industry, we’ve shared the Sabre Beyond NDC strategy, and we’ve even given you a few steps to get started with NDC. Whether you choose to take a leading approach to develop full-scale NDC-enabled solutions in your organization, or if you’re still educating yourself on the topic, we hope you’ve found our eBook helpful in fast-tracking your NDC strategy.
NDC holds immense transformational opportunities, but Sabre isn’t stopping there. While it’s the end of our eBook, it’s only the beginning for our NDC-enabled solutions. In true Sabre form, we’re delivering an intelligent, end-to-end retailing ecosystem that transcends the NDC standard. It’s not just NDC, it’s NDC to the power of Sabre!