Customer service may have nudged out price as the main differentiator for airline bookings during Covid-19.  

How an airline communicates about its hygiene, boarding processes, food selection, seating availability, and social distancing space are among the questions that have taken on a completely new importance for air travelers.

Mark Ridley, who was recently appointed Head of Airline Distribution Solutions and the NDC [X] program at Amadeus, has argued that IATA’s New Distribution Capability (NDC) standard could provide a clearer connection for informing an airline customer on what to expect about a flight from everything from cleaning protocols to dining options to whether the carrier’s middle seats are unoccupied.

As a global distribution system and travel tech company, Amadeus has championed NDC since its inception in 2012. NDC was created to simplify and unify the airline shopping experience. In essence, NDC allows airlines, travel management companies, online travel agencies, corporate buyers, GDSs, and other technology players to transact seamlessly through a single software format.

For Ridley, that NDC definition is too limiting. He wants NDC to be used “beyond selling.” He believes the IATA program can be used to foster clearer and more rapid communication by airlines and travel companies to their customers.

In a blog post, How the Covid-19 Crisis Highlighted Customer Service, Ridley says NDC’s expansion into flight reservations solutions can easily alert travelers about flights that are cancelled, changed, or modified. IATA is also defining a voucher process for NDC, so that it can be implemented in the next standard update.

Aside from improving airline communications, Ridley also discussed his new dual role and his long history at Amadeus, where he began his aviation tech career in 2005. We also explored what he sees as a new era of partnering among the various tech companies in the travel space.

“Covid-19 has reinforced there is a continual need to collaborate across the industry to develop integrated solutions that ensure travelers can be well served from the time of booking through to their destination and until home again,” Ridley said.

Mark Ridley, Amadeus

Kambr Media: What was your background prior to this new dual role?

Mark Ridley: I started as a programmer on the reservation system way back. I've done a bunch of things in product management. I was taking care of the cruise business unit at the time we launched at Amadeus Cruise. Later on, when I was head for fares and pricing, we launched Amadeus Ticket Changer.

I've been involved in a couple of launches of some quite significant products. And over the years I've built up a network within the company. So all of those things, I think probably came together to say, "Okay, let's give Mark this NDC [X] program and let him head it and see where we go.”

Since I was part of the program previously, I was one of the NDC [X] champions. It's a role we created to help evangelize NDC across our customer base. So, I was already fairly knowledgeable about that distribution. I've been in and around distribution for a long time. One of my previous roles was part of the distribution of sales engineering team. So I was out talking to airlines all the time about different solutions, so I have a great role there. Now it's how do we bring that together, and how do we push forward? So distribution is still very important to Amadeus, and we need to keep expanding our portfolio.

What are your priorities right now as you step into the role of Head of Airline Distribution Solutions and NDC [X]? 

It's very much a dual role.

Being in charge of distribution solutions is involves looking forward to we're going to do into the future. Distribution is based very much on legacy protocols, but still there's a lot of functionality forgetting airline product in front of customers. That will evolve. We can't expect all customers to jump to NDC all in one go. We're going to have those two things in parallel.

As Gianni [Pisanello, the previous head of NDC [X]] used to say, "NDC is the protocol - the good stuff's going to come when we start putting things on top." That's where I see my role in heading up distribution solutions is.

We've got NDC up and running. It's going. The messaging is going to allow certain exchanges of data, information. How can we leverage that? How can we take that information and do something with it in both directions?

Maybe there are some things we can send to airlines. Maybe there are some things we can receive back from airlines that we can put in front of our customers and make that more interesting proposition for them.

As you noted in your blog post, Amadeus has long supported NDC for advancing airlines’ digital transformation. What’s your sense of the impact on NDC adoption from this crisis?

Nothing has changed in what we want to do. The great news is for us as a company, NDC remains a priority project. We're maintaining the investment in this program across our different business units to make sure that NDC is becoming a reality.

If we look around the partners we're working with, some of them are going through very difficult times. Some of them are on furlough. They're only working one day a week. But they're still maintaining that NDC project with us. So, okay. They're not as responsive to emails and may be testing some functionalities as they were previously, but they're still working. They continue to work. So for me, the crisis or no crisis hasn't really changed in what we're trying to do with NDC.

So we're going to make sure we're rolling the product out to the trade relations, and making sure that we're implementing more airlines, and getting those two things working together. In a way, it’s business as usual.

Obviously, if you're an airline now, you're hurting. You're going to focus on trying to start refilling planes. That has to be priority for us across all of the industry.

Most companies, as they try and look forward, past this crisis, look to what's going to happen as we start to pick up. That's when NDC will start to show. We're at a very early stage now to see that we can take advantage of it now is a little bit too early, unfortunately. Everybody sees it as the future.

Do you see NDC as a direct link to a stronger recovery for individual airlines using it?

It's probably going to depend whether we've got a V-shaped or a U-shaped recovery. If it's V-shaped, then maybe NDC doesn't bring much to the table. But if it's a longer recovery, and we start to implement more airlines and bring this new functionality into play, then I'm sure it's going to help.

Airlines are going to need to reassure their passengers to make sure things are healthy on the aircraft. NDC, because of the way the standard is written, allows for the exchange of information. It should be able for the airlines that pass that type of information is kind of rich media, rich content, that then can be displayed to the customer or to the travel agent. That allows them to say to the customer, "This is what we're doing. This is maybe how we're setting ourselves apart from the other airline."

So often, we talk about “differentiating content,” and people look at that only in the sales channel. We should see that NDC can bring a little bit more to the party than just sales. It can be used as an information tool as well as anything else.

What’s your view of industry collaboration?

One thing we've done within NDC [X] is created a domain, which we're calling “Industry Expertise,” which is headed up by one of my colleagues. It's intended to strengthen how we're talking to industry bodies, notably, IATA, which sets the standards.

We go along to all of the IATA meetings that we can. We've built up a lot of experience over the last couple of years by implementing NDC with airlines, and by understanding what the travel agencies need. We're giving as much input as we can to those bodies to make sure that the standards are going to work for everybody.

We're not going to compete on standards as an industry. We need the standards to be there, we need everybody adhering to them, following it as closely as possible, because that's going to help adoption for everybody. My role now, as head of the NDC [X] program, is to focus on adoption.

How are you working to expand adoption of NDC?

We've built an in-house tool to look within the messages themselves to make sure there's coherence between certain data elements. We've found that there are some cases where something is mentioned in one half the message, but is never used again. There’s a lot of repetition in terms of the elements of the messaging that we can fix.

We're bringing this tool to IATA to say, "Look, let's work on just streamlining the messages, because if you're making them larger and larger and larger, it's going to affect response times for everybody. It's just going to make everybody's life a little bit more difficult."

Have you been flying recently? Do you have any plans to fly? And if so, where would you want to go?

Well, I haven't flown for a while. And I do miss face-to-face customer meetings. Every time you meet a customer, you learn something new. I don't think you quite get the same thing working across a video screen. Some of the downtime moments allows for just one small comment that will spark a new conversation. That’s pretty difficult in a kind of fixed time slot of a Zoom meeting.

As for travel, for my birthday, my wife had promised me a trip to Norway to see the northern lights towards the end of the year. Whether that's still going to come off, I don't know. It should be open. Things should be open by then. But whether everybody's flying at the time, is yet to be seen.

For business reasons, I expect things will start to open up probably over the next couple of months and we should start to be able to meet our customers once again.