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Monday,  June 24, 2024 12:38 PM 

Q&A: Are travel agencies ready for NDC? Air Canada’s Mark Nasr talks Sabre, surcharges & more


Q&A: Are travel agencies ready for NDC? Air Canada’s Mark Nasr talks Sabre, surcharges & more
Mark Nasr, executive vice-president, marketing and digital, Air Canada. (Pax Global Media)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

Air Canada’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) program went live Wednesday (June 14), modernizing the airline’s platform with expanded content and additional support for travel agencies and buyers.

The program is about offering a competitive alternative to legacy distribution via EDIFACT channels by giving travel agents access to expanded Air Canada inventory, fares, ancillary services, ticketing, and digital products.

Air Canada says its focus is about introducing new content, rather than removing existing content, from GDS channels.

As reported previously, NDC technology aims to offer the best possible pricing while also improving competitiveness and the overall customer experience.

For example: it can improve processes around change exchanges, cancellations, refunds, servicing and seat assignments.

The switch-over will also create opportunities for travel agencies to finally engage with Aeroplan. 

Globally, Canada is behind on this modernization journey – some four to seven years behind other parts of the world, such as Europe, Australia and Southeast Asia, where adapted NDC-powered systems are already active.

READ MORE: Air Canada to launch NDC program in June. SVP Mark Nasr explains what this means

Air Canada, which held consultations with Canadian and U.S.-based travel agencies over the past year to help inform this transition, announced its NDC plan in April, giving agencies some time to adapt their systems.

One key part of the update is the introduction of a distribution surcharge, called Distribution Cost Recovery (DCR), for bookings that occur, from June 14 onwards, via old EDIFACT channels.

This surcharge ranges from $29 to $32 (in Canadian dollars), per ticket, depending on the GDS. The following chart shows a breakdown. 

In other words, starting today, any booking that’s made using legacy technology will be assessed for the surcharge, which is to be collected from the customer.

The charge will not apply to bookings made using Air Canada’s NDC-connected options, as well as through the airline's direct booking channels, such as aircanada.com, aircanada.com/agents, Air Canada for Business, the Air Canada mobile app, or group bookings.

READ MORE: Air Canada, Sabre form distribution & retailing partnership, add NDC-sourced content

As previously reported, Air Canada has already enabled access to its range of NDC-sourced content through the Amadeus Travel Platform. And, as announced yesterday, Sabre will activate Air Canada NDC content in a few months.

How does Sabre fit into Air Canada’s NDC strategy?

Does this mean Sabre-made bookings now face a surcharge?

Are Canadian travel agencies ready for NDC technology?

PAX caught up with Mark Nasr, executive vice-president, marketing and digital for Air Canada, via video link on Tuesday (June 13) to get all the answers.


PAX: How does the Sabre agreement fit into Air Canada’s NDC strategy?

Mark Nasr (MN): This is at the very core of our strategy promise. We keep talking about a smooth transition, and one of the key aspects is providing GDS options, in addition to three other options we have for integration. Having Air Canada's NDC content available through the GDSs comes with very little transition from a technology and tools perspective for agencies.

Sabre is the leading GDS in Canada, by quite a margin. And so, what we’ll do in this partnership is take all the virtues of NDC – which is additional content, new features and tools and, over time, additional post-purchase servicing – and bring it natively to Sabre’s booking desktop and Sabre’s APIs for larger agencies and some of the booking tools that are integrated.

PAX: From Air Canada’s perspective, how many agencies are using Sabre?

MN: Sabre represents about half of our volume from Canadian agencies. So, it's very significant. And when you add Amadeus into the mix, which is number two in the marketplace in Canada for Air Canada, right away you get to a super majority of current agencies that are going to continue to transact for GDSs that will have a robust NDC option.

Mark Nasr, executive vice-president, marketing and digital for Air Canada. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

PAX: How will the user experience on Sabre change?

MN: It actually shouldn't. That's one of the key parts. If agencies are using Sabre’s latest technology, the new content will integrate seamlessly into their flows. We have Sabre’s commitment on that. They've made a large investment in their tooling to make this transition opaque for agencies. They won't need to do a significant amount of retooling or retraining.

We are still in the midst of integrating with Sabre, so the Amadeus NDC connection is available for Canadian agents [as of June 14]. For Sabre, it will take several months longer to be able to complete the integrations. But all the benefits will occur on day one when we light that up. We are Sabre’s top priority, Sabre is one of our top priorities. And so, it's a matter of a few months.

PAX: Can you narrow down the timeline? Is there a launch date in mind?

MN: It will be as soon as possible, with maintaining a quality integration, so that agents like the product they're getting. I don't want to get too far ahead of our partners in declaring a date. But we are fully aware that this will be a popular option in the marketplace and one that many agencies will choose to leverage. That is driving our purpose and the focus we have to get this done well.

PAX: Why is it taking so long?

MN: The simpler and more straightforward it is to the agent on the frontend, typically means the deeper the integration is on the backend. For Sabre and Air Canada, we’re undertaking a very deep integration whereby the full breadth and functionality of Air Canada will be available to Sabre, and then Sabre has to stitch that in with all of their other content and existing tools. We're doing the work alongside Sabre so that agencies can benefit. But it’s quite a lot of work to do.

PAX: Does this mean Sabre-connected agencies will have to collect a DCR surcharge until the NDC content activates?

MN: It's important to note that it's not an agency-paid fee, it's a fee the agency is collecting on behalf of our joint customers. But yes, that will be assessed on all Sabre bookings within Canada because Sabre is only EDIFACT-connected for the time being.

I should note: there are three other options for agencies in Canada to access Air Canada's NDC content. They can utilize our booking engine, the AC Connects solution, they could do a direct integration with us, or they could also use a third-party tech provider. All agencies have an option, at least, to be able to perform bookings for their customers without the DCR. But of course, we recognize that many agencies will want to remain in their GDS, and continue transacting with their GDS toolset.

And so, the DCR allows them to continue to get access to all of the content that we have on those EDIFACT rails. The DCR creates a sustainable economic model for us to be able to continue to offer all of that content.

PAX: Is Air Canada partnering with any other GDS systems?  

MN: There’s Travelport, and we have a relationship with them. It's not a relationship that offers NDC quite yet, but we’re continuing to be in discussions with them. Until that time, Travelport subscribers will be able to access the full breadth of content that they can access today on EDIFACT. It will continue to be available to them. And we have a DCR being assessed as well for those bookings.

(Air Canada)

PAX: What kind of feedback have you received from travel agencies?

MN: If I had to describe it in one word, I would describe it as productive. We've had productive conversations across the board. Some agencies were further along in their NDC journey and were better prepared. Other agencies are at the beginning of their journey. And so, there's going to be a different sense of how prepared they are based on where they lie on that continuum. Our goal is our investments in training and communications and to be able to bring agencies to the other side.

But transitions always have an element of growing pains and discomfort. We're fully aware of that. We have open hearts, open minds, and open ears to getting feedback and adjusting or supporting as we need to.

PAX: What has been the biggest challenge so far?

MN: The knowledge gap. Some agencies were very well aware of NDC and understood the options before we provided them. And so, they were ready to engage. Other agencies had heard of NDC, but weren't familiar with the benefits, or the reasons of why we're pursuing it, or familiar with their options for integration.

PAX: Is Canada’s travel agency community ready for NDC?

MN: Our approach has been all about additive, not subtractive. Anyone who’s ready to transact and book with Air Canada, pre-NDC, is ready for tomorrow because we're not taking anything away. That's the critical part. Yes, I realize the DCR is being added, and I realize that for some agencies, the DCR will be assessed more frequently than it might be for others that are further along in their journey.

The fundamental truth is, whatever an agent could do today, in terms of accessing an itinerary, price or service with this tool, the agency can do tomorrow. That's a market difference from some of our competitors.

I'd also note that if an agency had a support mechanism to ring or email at Air Canada today, they will continue to have that support. Which is different from how some other airlines have approached the marketplace, which has been subtractive.

PAX: What's your message to the travel agency community as Air Canada’s NDC program goes live?

MN: The message would be thank-you for your support. We hope that you'll find the option, or options, that work best for you. We're fully available to answer any questions or provide any guidance. My hope for the agency community is that they see and believe our sincere focus on a smooth transition and that they let us know how we can make a smooth transition work for them.

Air Canada has launched an NDC hub here with up-to-date program information.

To help travel advisors understand NDC better, the Association of Canadian Travel Agencies (ACTA) is hosting webinars with both Air Canada and Amadeus this month. Click here for details. 

This interview was condensed for length.


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