IATA Readies Distribution Standards

The International Air Transport Association plans to reveal this year industry standards and a new workflow for booking, shopping and distributing airline content through indirect channels. 

Carrying a torch lit by the Open Axis Group and other standards-making bodies, IATA intends to develop "the standards, the framework and the business requirements" for its vision of future airline distribution, IATA head of passenger services Eric Léopold this week told The Beat

The global airline organization aims to reveal to members in October the standards, workflow and any accompanying coding, with airline adoption beginning as soon as January 2013, when the standards take effect. 

IATA this year also expects to publish "a five-year project roadmap and a full presentation of the business case for airlines," the organization noted in a February article in its Airlines International magazine.

The IATA board in December endorsed the standards-making effort, and the association now is "putting together the leadership for the project," Léopold said. The effort will be guided by a group of 10 IATA member carriers, representing a cross-section of geographic locations and alliance affiliations.

Léopold said that IATA plans to take an inclusive approach to setting the standards, with travel agencies, global distribution system providers and other stakeholders invited to sit at the table. "That's the way we usually set our standards," he said. "We invite all the people who are going to implement the standards in the end to build the standards in the beginning."

War Of Words

Despite IATA's promises to engage GDSs in the process, recent IATA characterizations of the GDS channel as an outdated "bottleneck" have sparked another war of words. Representing GDSs and online travel agencies, the Interactive Travel Services Association this month responded that distributors are "the most cost-effective tool for buyers of business travel to manage the complexity of supply."

The premise behind IATA's efforts, according to Léopold and statements by IATA, is that the current model--wherein airlines file with ATPCo fares that are aggregated by the GDSs and sold through travel agencies--is broken, and that there is a gap between how airlines sell through their own sites versus GDS channels. 

To the dismay of ITSA and the European Technology and Travel Services Association, IATA argued that GDSs have been "unable to handle the rapidly increasing range of product offerings from airlines."

Yet, IATA seeks to develop a new model to enable airlines to "offer a full range of products," including ancillaries, "through all available channels." The association is seeking new methods for airlines to differentiate services through indirect channels, as opposed to competing on "very basic metrics such as price, time and routing--just as they were four decades ago," according to IATA.  

ITSA and ETTSA in an open letter to IATA director general Tony Tyler denounced some IATA characterizations as "a fundamentally false picture of the GDS industry and the value it brings to the airline community." ITSA and ETTSA argued that GDSs indeed have innovated to fill airline needs. "As you will know, the first airlines are now filing ancillary services and fees through the GDS channel, with many more due to follow," according to the letter. 

'Good Schemas'

Léopold stressed that IATA is not developing a GDS bypass or a direct-connect solution. "There will be a distributor," he said, "because the need to aggregate content is part of the new workflow. What is really new in the workflow is that the airline is building the price and the offer, then all the airlines will use a common interface, which makes it easier for a distributor or an aggregator to aggregate content from hundreds of airlines and display transparently and dynamically all the offers available."

To that end, IATA this year could issue its own standard XML schema to guide industry players in adhering to its vision. Whether IATA builds its own or endorses other industry standards has yet to be determined, "because there are very good schemas already out there," Léopold said. "That's a decision that will be made during the year."

After IATA first set standards on e-ticketing, the association eventually mandated industry adoption of its prescribed solution. While that's a possibility down the road for its distribution standards, Léopold said, "I would say today we're not there yet." When it comes to previous IATA standards, "In some cases, we say it has to be 100 percent, otherwise it doesn't work. Or in some cases, we say it's more optional. For now, it's optional, meaning that airlines and distributors and travel agents will choose one workflow or the other."

While ongoing rhetoric suggests that distributors and airlines have much to overcome, IATA noted industry buy-in is critical to the adoption of its standards. 

"It doesn't work if IATA is pushing one thing that the GDSs and travel agents don't want," said Léopold. "What made the success of the former projects we had--e-ticket and the electronic miscellaneous document--it was implemented and used by GDSs and travel agents. They were in on it from the beginning. We want to use the same recipe for this project."

ITSA and ETTSA in their letter to Tyler noted that GDSs have been "fully engaged in the activities of IATA's EMD working groups that develop the data standards for tracking the sale of charges for ancillary services, and we have been working at the same pace to ensure our technology can support the changes the airline industry wishes to see."