For most consumers, booking an airline ticket is a matter of clicking or scrolling through online options to find the best deal. Behind the curtain, however, is an intricate distribution system — one that manages the flow of airline ticket transactions not only through apps and websites but also across a constellation of sellers, intermediaries and conduits. This highly choreographed ticketing system is essential in coordinating the millions of airline seats booked daily.
Consumers know that when the system fails — as we recently saw with Ticketmaster — it can set off chaos. While not all air travelers are Taylor Swift fans, they have learned why it is critical that today’s digital networks be modern and durable. It is puzzling why some are stomping their feet and standing in the way of modernizing technology that creates the most convenient and best experience for air travelers.
American Airlines is now shifting to New Distribution Capability (NDC), a modern aggregator for purchasing tickets that replaces antiquated technology in place since the 1980s. While dozens of carriers have already moved to this infrastructure abroad, and more intend to follow, American’s moves have fueled some consternation among a handful of travel agencies that have not adequately prepared for the switch from the legacy systems. Despite notice of the change dating back to 2017 and even offers from the airline to cover the costs of the move, these organizations are unfortunately seeking to derail the modernization altogether.
The American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA) is accusing American of forcing NDC on their industry at “breakneck” speed, even though American released its NDC transition plan more than five years ago. ASTA’s efforts to push American Airlines to delay its full implementation of NDC include writing letters to the Department of Transportation and Department of Justice seeking intervention, but with NDC already in operation, and given the years of notice, their claim that the move is premature doesn’t hold water. Moreover, ASTA does not even disagree with the many benefits of NDC; it wants to kick the can down the runway because, for all its flaws, the current system has been good for its bottom line.
Ultimately the people most hurt by ASTA’s stance are passengers, who will lose out on numerous benefits, including personalized offers and deals, additional accommodations, real-time ticket pricing and flight information, and countless other conveniences. But in the age of Spotify, ASTA wants to hand consumers Walkman padded headphones.
NDC is a sorely needed upgrade to the current ticketing system, which lacks transparency and consistency for passengers who book directly through airlines or via third parties, and customers are already reaping the benefits of a more tailored and transparent experience.
Through NDC, airlines can see more than a faceless consumer, enabling them to personalize a flier’s experience and offer them the specific products and services that suit their preferences. For example, ensuring that the fares and options reflect their frequent-flier status or the ability to select premium seats when reserving through intermediaries. Some NDC features, like automated notifications for unplanned scheduling changes, feel so commonsense that one could wonder why they aren’t universal.
Meanwhile, name brands are already using NDC and have been for years. In 2022, one of every three bookings through a travel agency on American Airlines flights was via NDC. Unsurprisingly, other airlines in the United States are also moving in this direction to keep pace.
While ASTA has tried to cast opposition to change as a matter of helping consumers, it is only holding consumers back from a far superior, convenient and modern flying experience. Meanwhile, it clings to an outdated system that serves to benefit it.
In implementing a new booking system, American is bearing most of the risk, as fewer tickets sold come out of their pocket. The time for a more modern system is long overdue, and with all of their excuses having run dry, it is time for ASTA and all stakeholders to get on board NDC and buckle in for a smoother flight.