IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC)

This analysis appeared July 15, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


In an industry as diverse as travel distribution, there is rarely a shortage of controversial ideas. Recently, critical voices have been raised against IATA’s “New Distribution Capability” (NDC) initiative, variously asserting that its development was closed to most outside input, that it is unfair to travel agents, technology providers, and other stakeholders. It is claimed that the NDC harms consumer interests, and that its implementation requires unacceptable privacy compromises and financial expenditures from distributors and consumers alike.

Curiously, I’ve yet to hear the simplest and most concise justification for opposing the NDC from anyone:

It’s a fundamentally bad idea that probably won’t work.

As these posts must necessarily be brief, I’ll only touch on a few of the NDC’s strategic and business flaws–operational and technological shortcomings must await another discussion.

What Is the NDC?

According to IATA1 the NDC is a business and technological initiative best understood as a process that allows “indirect channels” to enable the same capabilities that exist on airline websites, while preserving an airline’s control of the product. It also proposes to enable product innovation, differentiation, and personalization by directly accessing expanded information as to a traveler’s purchasing profile and history.

The NDC’s “initial scope is the shopping process.” As an example of how this might work, supporters maintain that the NDC will modernize air travel distribution and benefitconsumers by giving them an experience similar to Amazon.

Perhaps, but the NDC mistakenly confuses multiple goals in a package that delivers capabilities few people want. It’s technical features represent one way, certainly not the only or necessarily the best, to enhance shopping data. Other intended benefits are more dubious.

Amazon is a poor service delivery model–air travel distribution has little to do with selling books or consumer products.

The personalized shopping experience, whether through Amazon or an airline, is largely a chimera without real-world application. Frequent Amazon shoppers are aware of the annoying and usually irrelevant suggestions the site continually offers–transferring this unhelpful dialogue to benefit air travel strains the imagination.

One Bad Idea Begets Another

IATA is criticized for failing to adequately consult with distributors and consumers as the NDC was developed–perhaps justly so, although interpretations disagree as to how meaningful the prior industry dialogue was. It’s worth noting that however worthwhile these discussions might have been, IATA isn’t obliged to hold them in any particular way, or to do so at all.

There is also a serious question as to who might participate. There are no industry-wide trade associations with adequate technology capabilities, credibility, and resources to represent even segments of distributors or consumers. Individual companies may have meaningful input, but are not in a position to speak for anyone else, or even their own customers.

Industry discussions to develop and refine technology policy are exceedingly rare–much more so that IATA’s critics would have us believe. Those who feel excluded would do well to upgrade the forums, expertise, and messages they might use to make meaningful future contributions.

Who Benefits?

Shouldn’t airlines know more about the consumer prior to booking so they can “personalize” the product offering, as the NDC promises?

If that were so, it should be easy to describe what that “personalization” would look like–but it isn’t. Beyond the vague “more like Amazon” promise, “personalization” sounds like a more technologically advanced bundling of the many obscure fees and charges no one likes or wants.

If the result isn’t higher consumer costs, what is it?

Many airlines have had access to personal data that were supposed to enable better offerings for decades (through frequent flyer programs, for example). The fact that these enhancements have been meager causes consumers to rightly question whether the new expense and privacy compromises the NDC imposes are justified.

The New Distribution Capability proposes to solve problems most consumers don’t see as problems and deliver ill-defined benefits they haven’t asked for and probably won’t appreciate–at an undetermined cost they are unlikely to embrace. Wholly apart from the clumsy way it has been developed and presented, this is not a formula for a successful project.

IATA was ill-advised to start down this path and its airline participants are likely to see more customer grievances, direct and indirect program costs, and few of the NDC’s promised benefits.

  1. International Air Transportation Association (IATA), NDC Update, November 2012, page 8.

Perspectives on Data Ownership: 2013

This analysis appeared March 15, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


Recent popular discussions of “big data” (a surprisingly ill-defined term) are curiously silent on where these data may come from and who should decide where and how they are used. Perhaps this is because the current social media wave encourages individuals and businesses to surrender a degree of privacy (and hence control over data) in return for the promised benefits of whatever service is on offer.

While we may believe that travel data ownership questions were settled long ago, control and ownership questions are more complex than many assume and require careful review regardless of how open or restrictive data access should be.

Everyone’s In Charge

Most travel businesses you speak with will assert either that passenger travel data belong to them or that they have a right to use and distribute them essentially as they see fit.

Corporate travel managers usually maintain that, since they pay the bills, they both own and control the data. Airlines and other vendors often assume the right to use and distribute data about the use of their services, and travel management companies believe they have a degree of ownership because much of the most valuable travel data comes from their systems and exists because they expended energy to create it on behalf of “their customers.”

This travel data ownership conflict is a familiar story, but there are other less evident or considered levels:

A number of processing intermediaries including payment systems, ticket processors, GDS companies, and on-line booking tools assert a right to distribute travel data and reports for their financial benefit, apart from any direct or indirect benefit travel buyers receive. Typically this is done with individual travelers remaining anonymous, but the degree to which “anonymous” travel detail is widely available, down to specific itineraries and dates, would surprise most travel managers.

Many sources also make data available to third-party aggregators, who also operate for their own financial benefit under the assumed anonymity of individual travelers. Such companies produce an array of usage and comparative models, predictions, and similar data projects which find uses far removed from travel management.

Assumed Anonymity

I use this term to describe the broad assumption that, if my name isn’t present, whatever follows doesn’t matter. Anonymity can unravel quickly. It’s hard to argue that the kind of industry-wide data aggregations used by the DOT and others to predict economic trends are threatening, but under the care of a skilled analyst, extensive company-specific and individual travel patterns could be deduced, especially by combining multiple sources.

Interesting Questions

The extent and depth of travel data distribution and usage should at least cause travel managers some reflection, even if they decide they need not be concerned.
Here are a few specific thoughts:

  1.  complete chain of custody affecting anyone’s travel data is unknown–sometimes adequate, elsewhere non-existent. Many companies with data responsibilities have no real data security program in place that runs deeper that simply saying the right things.
  2. How is it that so many travel industry business intermediaries are selling data produced by customer activities for their own benefit? Aggregate industry analytical reports are one thing–distributing detailed raw data to third parties is another. Where did that permission come from?
  3. Have corporate travel managers looked at the type of data being distributed about their travelers in detail and rationalized it with their own company privacy and security practices?
  4. Are travel management companies comfortable with the extent of peer comparison by vendors and subsequent data aggregation that has become commonplace in the industry?

Whose Customer?

This analysis appeared April 9, 2013 in Cornerstone Information System’s “Insight & Opinion” section.


Talking about “the travel industry” often invites criticism that it’s impossible to generalize–travel companies of any description are not identical and can’t be expected to behave as one. This ignores the experience of even casual observers, who see business decisions, successes, and failures widely replicated and frequently repeated throughout the travel industry over time.

There is a continuity within companies that operate in the same field, face similar market challenges, and who must compete with each other that causes them to align similar practices and strategies to an often surprising degree. What is referred to as “institutional memory, (the phenomenon where groups of people working together circulate and perpetuate the same ways of thinking over time), makes such alignments difficult to change.

One such area is ownership and management of the customer relationship. Travel vendors largely think they should be interacting with their customers directly and with as few intermediaries as practical.

This belief predates the coming of The Internet and electronic commerce–it’s varied over decades but never disappeared. In many ways it’s a stronger business force than on-line selling.

The fact that travel vendors generally don’t do an especially good job of interacting with their customers, or of listening to them, doesn’t cancel the desire to remove intermediaries.

If it Were Only True

If travel suppliers deal directly with customers, costs and inefficiencies should decline. More important, it should be possible to protect and preserve loyal customers.

It almost never works that way.

One major impediment is that, to provide effective customer service, you need to listen to your customers and understand what they say. Translating these simple requirements into appropriate actions proves particularly difficult for the travel industry.

With exceedingly rare exceptions, nobody in the travel industry delivers customer service and nobody can–where “customer service” is defined as delivering what the customer truly wants to buy when it is needed.

Airlines are a reasonable example. Do you know anyone who thinks the excessive and capricious baggage fees most carriers are anxious to charge are a good idea? I’ve asked that question before groups of hundreds; apart from a few people with a specific viewpoint to represent, I’ve yet to get an affirmative response. I’ve never even heard of such a response.

The “ATM machine in the sky” approach to airline pricing is a major profit contributor, but it wasn’t designed to please the consumer.

If travel purchasers received everything they wanted by removing intermediaries, they’ve had the past 18 years (since the availability of Internet-based tools) to eliminate travel management companies, on-line travel sellers, and corporate travel departments. There remain necessary services that suppliers can’t or won’t provide.

Listen Here!

Travel management companies usually fail the “customer service” test as well. Even the most sophisticated are good at order-taking, exceptional at listening to customers (much better than vendors), tepid at data analysis and product innovation that addresses real customer needs, and non-existent at informed communication–when was the last time you received a newsletter or e-mail bulletin from a TMC that wasn’t an immediate, no-consequence throw-away?

Customer relationships are the product of continued, frequently arduous investment. They are earned, not simply claimed. Intermediaries such as TMCs and OTAs are valuable travel management participants because they meet real needs, despite their own failings.

Efforts to change that without adding equivalent value are destined to the growing list of management theories that simply don’t apply to this industry.

Improving Travel Industry Research

Once again a new year brings another round of what passes for industry research. Although notoriously over-surveyed, the travel industry remains awash in bad data, ill-conceived and poorly executed research projects, and self-serving studies that are relevant more to the next round of funding or the next newsletter sale than to developing a real understanding of markets and trends.

Eventually the industry may get better at labeling useless research for what it is (the trend is not positive, however), but for now the very few good studies routinely drown amidst the hyperbolae of research that can’t connect with real insight–or those that connect all too well because the result was fairly evident before the process began.

Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the online travel and social media worlds. High-priced research typically reinforces conventional wisdom and assumptions while key customer and behavior questions remain unresolved.

I’ve wondered aloud in past articles why major trade groups show such slight interest in these issues. If the online and social media worlds have such monumental consequences, what precisely could be more important to their members?

Here are a few suggestions for modeling forthcoming research projects. These are similar to suggestions I’ve made in public for 15 years, and hopefully they will help you appreciate the limitations of today’s travel research and be positioned to improve it in the future.

    1)    Broaden the Base

Successful studies need wide participation and sponsorship. Those funded and controlled by a single company or clique are not necessarily bad, but this adds complexities and concerns that are avoidable through planning and execution that strives to include more viewpoints. Addressing the needs of a broad constituency increases both value and integrity.

    2)    Sampling Is Key

Few research projects undertaken in the travel industry describe how the study sample was selected, what the resulting accuracy and margin for error are, or the size of the sample.  This is because these are among the most challenging aspects of valid research–requiring time, expertise, and money to address properly.

Most researchers simply ignore them; the resulting studies are little better than worthless.

If you peek under the covers only slightly at a surprising number of major industry studies, you’ll discover that the sample essentially self-selects. The researchers won’t explain how their conclusions in this environment are valid because they aren’t–and they can’t.

There are many parts of a study that has sufficient statistical validity to become the basis for real-world conclusions and predictions, but one is usually that a valid sample must be defined and identified in advance of the research and then the study must continue until it reaches the sample as defined.  More work than most researchers want.

    3)    Questions, Questions

Any question-based research should disclose the questions used and how these are presented.  Forming valid questions is a significant undertaking–which is frequently botched.

During 2010 I was treated to a trade conference  where the expert presented study results to show the importance of the field where he was the market leader and that was the subject of his presentation.  The self-selected sample were asked a variety of simplistic questions with many obvious answers:

“Is cost-control important in your business?”

Have you ever met anyone who would answer “no?”

When the presenter reached some study questions that were clearly silly, he remarked,

“Well, my staff assembled these questions and I should have reviewed them better.”

In other words, the presentation is a waste of everyone’s time–which also says something about the extent to which some conference organizers vet their presentations.

    4)    Seek Wide Input

Limiting control over a study to its sponsors or other “insiders” cannot but color the result as self-serving. Enlightened researchers learned along ago that the “best and brightest” often don’t work for them and they seek such talent out wherever they can find it.

    5)    Dump Hyperbolae; Focus On Quality

The industry doesn’t need another round or praise describing how great the opportunity of the day may be. What’s needed is thorough research and careful answers that relate to business concerns and allow the reader to reliably take action.

This simple definition disqualifies most of the fluff-laden e-commerce and social media studies of the past few years. There are people who know how to do real research–it’s a mystery when their input is so clearly lacking in the major reports of today.

    6)    Analyze

As there are competent researchers there are also competent interpreters who can make connections between abstract numbers and real business situations. Their work ought to by key to any research project. A study lacking informed, usable conclusions should be first into the worthless bucket.

    7)    Validate

There’s a saying that teaches thus:

“Premises that are absurd when projected into the future were absurd to begin with.”

Researchers and readers alike need to apply logical tests in order to understand the validity of a study’s conclusions.

For instance, most predictions about the fantastic growth of mobile, social media-based, or other new media travel purchases assume a level of personal computer use and literacy throughout society that is simply absurd within the time frames considered.

Clearly studies are failures when they cannot withstand the test of reasonableness.

    8)    Forget “Guru” Mentality

Research is ongoing and the “final word” on most topics will likely never be written. Successful research projects are willingly subject to critical review and are revised in light of new viewpoint and data.

A premise holding that the oracle has now spoken and nothing further may be added only highlights the underling weakness of the research in question.