American Express Global Business Travel chief commercial officer Andrew Crawley submitted the following guest column urging airlines to be mindful of corporate customers as New Distribution Capability strategies evolve.
At a recent corporate travel buyer conference in London, a panelist refused to say "NDC" out loud during a session. The fear was that mentioning the acronym yet again would induce a collective eye roll from an audience already fatigued by the topic. It's unsurprising. There has been more noise than progress in the last decade. But now is not the time to shy away from conversations about airfare distribution. For too long, the specific requirements of managed travel have been overlooked by the airlines. That's why together, across the value chain, we must put the corporate customer at the center of our focus.
I was chief commercial officer of British Airways in 2012 when NDC was approved by the IATA Passenger Services Conference. Our strategy was principally driven around the desire to avoid the global distribution system costs for the large leisure travel volumes. There was also a secondary benefit: In theory NDC would allow us to create new bundles for leisure travelers. Why the focus on leisure? It was about 85 percent of the volume going through the GDSs and unencumbered by the complexities of managed business travel. We gave little thought to corporate customer needs or the travel management company environment.
More than 10 years have passed. While I now assess the distribution landscape from a TMC perspective, it is frustrating that some airlines—not all—continue to neglect managed business travel. NDC strategies—shelved during the pandemic—are being dusted off. Some airlines claim they are motivated by providing more choice and a better customer experience. Some argue the GDSs are not developing technology capabilities fast enough. They say the user interface of online booking tools is poor. If that's what they really believe, the airlines should unite with the GDSs, TMCs and travel managers to better understand what corporations and business travelers really need. No one is suggesting the current model isn't ripe for innovation. But until now, the airlines have been less about innovation and more about removing content, gaining control and passing distribution costs to the customer or TMC—and the customer will likely end up paying. The threat for travel buyers, therefore, is that airline distribution and pricing strategies risk increasing the cost of air travel while simultaneously damaging managed travel programs in the long term.
Many companies choose the TMC environment to manage travel. Why? Travelers can compare and book fares in a single, transparent shopping environment. They can make changes to their itineraries, which, one must remember, often include a hotel booking or car rental. They can automatically re-shop to find cheaper airfares and hotel rates. They can cancel a booking and request a refund. Travel managers, meanwhile, can optimize their travel program and fulfill their duty-of-care and traveler wellbeing obligations with real-time data at their fingertips. Even in periods of stability, these are all crucial components of managed travel—in times of disruption, the value is dialed up even further.
Many TMCs are already NDC-ready. But the managed business travel value proposition is, as of today, greatly diminished by it. Removing content from one channel only to make the same fares available using NDC is not innovation. Comparison shopping across airlines is made considerably harder. Servicing is, for now, almost impossible. Imagine arriving in a destination too late to catch a connecting flight. The airline with which you've booked doesn't have another flight until the following day, but you can't rebook on another airline without buying a new ticket because of the restrictions on your existing fare. If you've booked directly with the airline, only its call center or customer service desk at the airport can help. You've lost the ability to call an agent or have your itinerary automatically rebooked.
The managed experience is driven by automated disruption management tools, proactive traveler care and omnichannel support across chat, booking tools and travel counselors. With unmanaged travel, you're on your own. With managed, you have an ally—one committed to minimizing the cost, complexity and stress of your journey. Of course, we need to innovate and improve the managed travel ecosystem. The voice of the corporate travel manager should be central to those efforts. They need to ask: Will it make the traveler experience better? Will it generate more program savings? Will it improve servicing and support for travelers? If the answer to any of those questions is no—if "innovation" only leads to inefficiency and a transfer of cost—then one must seriously question the airlines' motivation. Until NDC enhances the value of managed travel, people might be embarrassed to talk about it publicly for some time to come.