August 14 - IATA’s NDC Traveler Tracking And Other Critical Issues


On August 6, 2013 Business Travel Coalition (BTC) published results of a survey (http://btcnews.co/1eJCQCv) of travel managers designed to determine what travel policy changes, if any, were being considered in light of the terror threat advisories. Travel managers need to know where travelers are in a time of crisis. As such, a majority of travel managers (57.9 percent) were concerned about the future tracking of travelers' whereabouts during a crisis because under the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Resolution 787 proposal, when a traveler needs to change an international itinerary after a trip begins, there could be multiple airlines sitting on disparate pieces of the Passenger Name Record in their respective systems.

After the survey results were published, BTC received the following important question from a travel technology reporter. BTC’s response follows the question.

<<In your latest survey, you say: “… under the IATA model, when a business traveler needs to change an itinerary after a trip begins there could be multiple airlines sitting on pieces of the Passenger Name Record, or PNR, in their respective systems.” I’m not sure how you got to this conclusion. If the agent has made the booking (which is the goal of NDC), the agent would have the full PNR. There are multiple-airline trips today, and there’s no issue. I haven’t seen anything to suggest the fragmentation that you suggest. Have you seen something I haven’t seen?>>

BTC ANALYSIS & RESPONSE

IATA’s NDC proposal is highly relevant to the recent terror threat warnings as the ability to track travelers’ whereabouts during a natural, political or terror-related crisis is a major priority for the managed-travel community. In addition to addressing how NDC could complicate the efficient location of travelers during a crisis, this response will explain why NDC poses very practical problems and raises operational questions that remain unanswered by IATA.

NDC is currently about shopping only; IATA has given the industry no satisfactory or workable answer as to where the bookings or tickets made in an NDC environment would reside. With GDSs not receiving published fares or schedules in an NDC environment, and with the carriers controlling what can be booked and where, the result could be disarray in terms of where various elements of a passenger’s trip would reside. The concept of a “Super PNR” is not within the scope of NDC and would be left to each individual system provider to resolve.

Further, and as explained below, the re-creation in an NDC environment of the comprehensive “live” and therefore up-to-date PNR for travelers that GDSs have would be a complex, challenging, expensive and uncertain project. Given the stakes for managed travelers, it would not be prudent for any of us to simply assume that if the airline industry implements NDC the PNR solution will come.

This is a complicated issue, but perhaps the best way to express the crisis-related fragmentation issue, identified in the BTC terror-alert survey results, is to separately explain current and proposed NDC systems, and then provide additional managed-travel perspective on operational and consumer issues associated with booking-data fragmentation possible under NDC.

TODAY

An agent today only needs to query its GDS for reservations made for a traveler and a GDS returns all reservations for him/her, including non-air components such as hotel, rental car, ferry, rail. So, in a crisis an agent and corporate travel-manager client can easily determine where in the world the traveler is, and importantly, where he/she will be heading next.

Importantly, in the current GDS environment, most travel agency bookings are “live,” which means the agency has some level of direct or shared connectivity to an airline’s (or other travel suppliers’) reservations systems. Accordingly, if an agent books an interline-based reservation for a traveler say from Dulles to Paris to Johannesburg to Miami and back to Dulles on three different airlines, the agent’s PNR contains the “live” reservations record. This is beneficial to the traveler and agent because with the reservation being “live,” the agent receives messages for real-time schedule and reservation changes and can manage the airline itinerary as a single unit for ticketing, changes, exchanges, etc.  In other words, since the booking in the GDS is “live,” the agency has a high degree of certainty that the reservations he/she sees in the GDS PNR are current and have not been superseded by other bookings.  As you can see, this assures that the agency knows in fact where the traveler is at any given moment and where the traveler is headed next.

In addition to efficiencies in locating and servicing the traveler, in the GDS system, an agent can issue an interline fare that often is much less expensive and offers greater flexibility than point-to-point fares. In a second example of an interline fare from DC to Johannesburg, the reservation allows for a stopover in Paris and is good on any participating interline carrier. Using this interline fare, the client flies on United to Paris and then South African Airways to Johannesburg. In this example, there’s just one fare from IAD to JNB that the two carriers divide up based on interline agreements. GDS representatives express that interline tickets today account for nearly 15% of all GDS itineraries, so a significant number of travelers use them, whether for convenience or for cost savings.

TOMORROW

It is unknown if a booking under NDC will be “passive” in the GDS. As of today, the industry simply doesn’t have an answer from IATA, and what they have said so far is unsatisfactory as this is a fundamental necessity for the managed-travel community. We know that “passive” segments do not provide any notification regarding schedule or other changes to the agency – they provide basic information for reporting purposes, but they lack the inter-connectivity to the airline’s system to ensure up to the minute, proactive updates so that agencies can provide the service required to a traveler in times of crisis.

Given that, we do understand that NDC is focused on shopping as a way to control itineraries and prices and since a Super PNR is outside the scope of NDC there would be no central database for an agent to query to track down all reservations for a traveler. And we have seen nothing from IATA that would show they know how to recreate in an NDC world the centralized system of “live” PNRs that GDSs offer -- or for that matter even that they understand that this is a gating problem for NDC that must be solved before it can be activated. The industry is very concerned that IATA is creating a mess in terms of how to track reservations in the hope that others will undertake the time and expense to clean it up. In short, attempting to track down a traveler in a time of crisis, and determining where he/she is heading next, could well become a game of “Go Fish.”

However, beyond crisis management, there are other major practical problems as well that would impede agencies’ efforts to provide good service for travelers. As widely understood, NDC is a direct connection to each carrier’s system. In essence, the aggregator/GDS directs the booking to each airline’s system where the reservation is made and transacted. Settlement may occur directly with the carrier (as with other airline-direct transactions) or, if the carrier chooses, it may be settled through ARC/BSP – again, IATA has not provided clarity on this to the industry.

In this NDC environment, the “live” segment resides in the airline’s system. Although not yet defined by IATA, the aggregator/GDS would presumably have to create a “passive” segment or a “copy” of the segment in the agent’s system, but there would be no “live” connectivity. It is unknown, and undefined, how an agency’s system would link to these direct bookings to service the traveler throughout the travel lifecycle, e.g., ticket issuance, schedule changes, voluntary changes, ticket exchanges, etc. For simple one-carrier itineraries - where there are no changes - this might be less of a problem, assuming that the travel agency has developed and maintains a system to track the airline host system in which it has booked the passenger. 

However, even with single-carrier reservations, if there have been changes to the reservations made by the airline or the traveler, then unless IATA can tell us how it will solve the reservations fragmentation issues the NDC shopping process would generate, we have to conclude the travel agency would not have the current reservation because the reservation is no longer “live” as it is in the GDS environment today. Further, with more complex international itineraries, and especially with interline itineraries and fares, the NDC system would appear to break down entirely as each airline would be the only live repository for reservations on its flights and in many cases carrier A might not even have a “passive” segment for the down line segment on airline B as consumers would be driven to book point-to-point tickets (for the reasons explained in question 3.d below).

Critical questions beyond tracking travelers in a crisis include:

1) What are IATA’s specific plans that would enable travel agencies to have access in an NDC world to a central reservations repository with “live” segments for all segments (air, car and hotel) booked for each traveler?

2) If a booking occurs within an airline’s system, and if only a “passive” segment is provided to the agent by the aggregator:

a. How would the agent be notified of involuntary schedule changes and cancellations if the booking is “passive” versus “live?”

b. How would the agent make a voluntary change to a reservation? Would the agent, through the aggregator/GDS, reach out to an airline directly to make a change?

c. How would the agent be notified of changes to reservations a traveler may have made on his/her own?

IATA’s answer to #2 is that agencies would have a “copy” of the reservation, but that answer does not address the overarching problem of ensuring that the agent would have access to the most current reservation arrangements for his/her traveler (so the agent would know just where a traveler was and was heading next at any moment in time) or the reservations fragmentation problem that would occur with interline ticketing. 

3) With a single interline ticket that involves multiple airlines, today there’s one plating carrier with multiple carriers within the itinerary. In the NDC environment:

a. How would the interline fare be calculated and how would the ticket be constructed? 

b. Which airline becomes the “plating” airline? Would this be even possible?

c. Or, would each airline in an interline itinerary be ticketed separately? How would this occur? How would changes be handled? How would minimum connect times, baggage agreements, etc. be managed?

d. Or, would interline fares simply go away and all fares become point-to-point? (I don’t think consumers would benefit if this occurs – in all likelihood, fares go up in this scenario.)  If you look at the IATA documents that Open Allies put on the public record in its Answer of May 1 at DOT you will see that the airline proponents of NDC have said in writing that constructing interline itineraries “moves” from the GDSs to the carriers and - ominously - that carriers have “few preferred partners.”)  If all tickets were issued point to point, would a traveler lose the benefit of each airline knowing the full journey and providing services such as checking a bag all the way to a traveler’s final destination? Would travelers lose the benefit of single bag charges for an entire journey including connections and even multiple carriers? Would the traveler then have to pay bag fees for each airline for each leg?  And what rights, if any, would these interline travelers who had made separate reservations with each carrier have if they misconnect in the case of an interline itinerary where the upline airline arrived too late to make the connection?  (I think we should all presume the travelers would be left entirely to their own devices.

When asked about #3, IATA simply says that it has a working group looking at the issue.

4. Would travel agencies retain PNR ownership during the entire lifetime of a booking?

IATA’s answer is “The assumptions for messages in an NDC environment are: the airline manages the airline PNR, which contains the airline product offer; the travel agent (or a third party) manages a customer record containing the full itinerary (which may include one or several air segments, as well as hotel, ground transportation, etc.); each air segment in the agent’s customer record is a copy of the airline PNR managed by the respective airline.”

So one can see that IATA’s answer only underscores the concerns that agencies would have no good way to be advised of changes to a traveler’s itinerary and that there would no longer be a central “live PNR” including all of the traveler’s most current reservations.

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