Ai Editorial: Taking NDC forward – stabilize the schema for all

First Published on 19th July, 2017

Ai Editorial: NDC data standard is not only an airline topic. It also affects the travel industry across the board. Considering that there was “too much flexibility in the initial versions of schema and implementations weren’t the same”, the industry is hoping for stabilization in the near future, writes Ai's Ritesh Gupta

 

If one were to offer a fair assessment of the adoption of IATA’s NDC XML standard after five years or so, then “slow” is an apt way to describe the same.

This industry is riddled with complexities so such progress is understandable to an extent.

In fact, as one of the senior industry executives mentioned, “If Amazon had to deal with intricacies of air travel, then it might not have taken off (as a retailer)!”

NDC is primarily about working out the criterion and workflow of the airline delivering the offer. A key aspect of this plan is to work out a schema that paves for carriers to create and deliver their respective offers to any distribution channel or 3rd party. A standardized schema makes it a scalable, repeatable, and over time economically beneficial process. So in case of any process modification, more so in a sector which has relied on legacy technology, the initial evolution of process, workflow, and featured technology calls for major investment from existing organizations and new entrants.    

Common protocol lets two systems understand and interact with each other. So definition of seats, baggage fare etc. becomes clear. So if there is a query from a system - how many seats of this class, category are available at this point of time, when this based on a pre-defined protocol, then the other system would be able to respond.

 

Significance of standardization

According to IATA, since NDC is a standard it will make such connections more cost effective and faster to deploy. If the partners involved (airlines or agents) see value in the presence of an intermediary, the standard can cater for that – and this is where aggregators come into play. They can be incumbents say, GDSs, or new players who are encouraged to offer their services “because the connectivity is fulfilled via an Internet-based standard which makes the marketplace much more open to competition”.

But, as an executive from a meta-search, points out, “For a meta-search, there are many different sources of content - via GDSs, airline-direct, OTA-direct etc. There is a network of connectivity and the objective is to aggregate as much as possible.  But we need to standardize as well. We do focus on it, so when entities converge on that, it would be beneficial for us, too. It is still a work in progress, as others are moving, too. And everyone has their own agenda, and time scale.”

An executive from GDS mentioned that having a set of standard messages is necessary but not sufficient. The executive stated that connecting systems with these standardised messages is the easier part. “Most vendors underestimate the complexity of the integration part.”

What has happened so far?

So there have been a couple of issues with versions and resulting implementations.  

The first official industry standard was launched in September 2015 as PADIS version 15.2. Further versions of the schemas are 16.1 and 16.2 while previous versions (1.1.1 and similar) are candidate releases. The evolution of the standard is captured within the different versions, with each new version incorporating improved functions reflecting the feedback from pilots and users.

“Probably because of the complexities (associated with the functioning of airlines and stakeholders), there was too much flexibility in the initial versions of schema and implementations weren’t the same. This is quite unfortunate for an initiative that is “targeting to be a standard”. Today even some of the basic NDC messages are being re-factored. Is the complexity rising at the moment or at least for next 2-3 years?”

Another executive, associated with a travel technology company, agreed and mentioned that “implementers” could interpret schemas in different ways. “The big problem came when the players like KAYAK and SkyScanner, and NDC consuming parties tried to build a one-time NDC connection in order to connect to multiple airlines with the least amount of effort considering that a standard was being planned. But the reality is that because of the varying level of interpretation, connections had to be modified somewhat. So with implementers providing their feedback to the IATA, the industry body has worked out a data modelling exercise. So they are redefining and tightening relationships in the NDC schema to ensure that the flexibility and looseness of the interpretation will go away. The new 17.1 scheme are going to be partly generated from the new airline data model and later on 17.2, the full schema set would be generated from the IATA data model. So when that’s done, there should be standardization in projects and implementations.”

As of now, it seems like over the past few years, there will be evolving versions of the schema that will impact the specific XML messaging, in that messages themselves will change over time – new ones added, existing ones modified, etc.   

So considering that airlines have developed their API based on a particular XML standard (NDC or even other), it would result in different interpretation of these standards. So for an intermediary, say a marketplace, working on multiple airline APIs calls for normalisation into a single version. It has be to ensured that this move brings down the overall bearing on the content and functionality as worked out by airlines through their APIs.

“The problem of different version would exist as different airlines would implement different versions of schemas. And when it comes to aggregators, they would need to deal with such disparity as for dealing with airlines. So the need for interoperability will exist.”

NDC is not only an airline topic as it affects the travel industry across the board.

For their part, IATA has clarified that NDC standard is not locked into XML. There have been plans to release a JSON profile as well.

IATA’s Industry Data Model initiative is focused on refining messaging standards development capability and enhancing interoperability of systems.  

As of now (even when questions have been raised whether NDC is truly an open standard or not), the industry is hoping that the NDC version 17.2 would result in stabilization.

 

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