GUEST: Despite Growing Pains, AmTrav's Klee Remains All-In On NDC

AmTrav CEO Jeff Klee submitted the following guest column, offering a rejoinder to American Express Global Business Travel's Minimum Marketable Product framework and issuing a plea for the industry to rev its engines on NDC.

Alexander Winton, who sold the first automobile in the United States in 1897, once wrote: "The greatest obstacle to the development of the automobile was the lack of public interest. To advocate replacing the horse, which had served man through centuries, marked one as an imbecile."

The New Distribution Capability effort by airlines to replace 40-year-old technology that underpins travel booking systems isn't as sexy or consequential, but the reaction isn't much different. In the same way early proponents of cars had to justify their effort (even though the very first ones were hardly faster than horses), so, too, with NDC.

American Express Global Business Travel recently published a document outlining 162 requirements airlines and others "need to fulfill" before Amex GBT will bring NDC content into their marketplace. It's a thoughtful document from an important industry voice. But when we focus on a list of 162 requirements, however legitimate a lot of them are, we miss the point.

My colleagues and I have created our own list—a list of goals and aspirations—that focuses not on why we shouldn't embrace NDC, but why we should. It's a vision for how we can use more modern technology that includes (but is not limited to) NDC to make life better for travelers and their companies who often seem forgotten in this debate.

Unlike Amex GBT's, our list makes no mention of fare basis codes, reservation booking designators, passive segments, pseudo-city codes or interface records. We're not looking to shoehorn new technology into old processes. In fact, we're willing to ditch any legacy construct, process or workflow that constrains progress without adding value for customers. Travelers want to easily shop, book and change, but they couldn't care less if a letter of the alphabet is used to designate their fare.

Our list imagines a world where corporate booking tools are an extension of airline merchandizing platforms, where travelers can choose freely whether to book direct or through a booking tool—but, either way, get the same offers, the same extras and the same ability to self-service. We want bookings that start in one channel to be serviceable in another, with the traveler and company having full visibility within the corporate platform either way.

For travelers, we want rich, interactive seat maps; 360-degree virtual tours of planes; upfront indicators for which flights have open aisles and windows and how many seats might be available for an upgrade. We want simple credit banks with all fully and partially unused tickets having a clear dollar value that makes it easy to change anything and everything online. We want travelers to be able to enroll in loyalty programs, upgrade with miles or see where they are on an upgrade list, all without leaving the tool. We want weather waivers and same-day offers included in standard change flows. We want travelers to be able to split any payment any way they want so that, if something is out of policy, they can pay the difference on a personal card. Some of you may have even better ideas. That's where the conversation gets exciting. We want to talk not of showstoppers, but possibilities.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but NDC is almost like a Trojan horse. I don't care to quibble about what works today and what doesn't because my real hope is that we can use NDC to bust up and liberate us from the crazy web of outdated, interdependent systems and processes that constantly throw wrenches in progress for our industry. Among many other things, these include green screens, antiquated mid- and back-office systems, primitive scripts, unstructured data, passive segments, PNRs-as-a-data-store and, as much as I hate conflating technology with commercials, legacy distribution economics.

The current generation of NDC APIs are the foot soldiers that will charge in brandishing lower fares, break a bunch of things that need breaking, and then once they get us past the point of no return, yield to better options—whether that means more functional NDC APIs, something else, or, my personal first choice, direct access to airline merchandizing platforms.

Is it reckless? If TMCs and booking tools are willing to do the heavy lifting, we can insulate our travelers from the transition pains. Is it technologically feasible? Maybe not all of it yet, but a lot of it is, and reaching beyond our grasp will probably serve us well regardless. Do the airlines even want this, or will they leave us standing at the altar? Surely some are inclined to do just that, but I am confident there is a "coalition of the willing"—a small group of airlines, TMCs and online booking tools that are willing to demonstrate that this isn't a zero-sum game, that there is more value that can be extracted to benefit airlines, TMCs and companies alike, while transitioning the industry to a foundation that is more capable, nimble and sustainable.

With all due respect to Amex GBT, their list of 162 items is a red herring. While it may have some value for tech teams and developers, when brought into the debate about how we should or should not modernize, it leads our eyes off the ball. It is relatively trivial that an NDC ticket might not interface properly with an old mid-office system. But it is anything but trivial that TMCs now find themselves between airlines who think they are paying too much and getting too little for distribution and travelers who are approaching a tipping point with OBTs that lack fares, options and servicing capabilities. Sure, we can keep fighting, insisting that PNRs and scripts and phase-four ticketing stay on the horse with us.

But how will the travel managers we've brought along for the ride feel about the cars that are starting to fly past them?