When IATA introduced New Distribution Capability (NDC) in 2015, airlines rejoiced. They could sell ancillary offers on other channels besides the direct one and capitalize on their main revenue source. Distributors were excited too — more content meant happier customers. But NDC didn’t have this content sorted or easy to display and search. So four years later, ATPCO offered a solution — Next Generation Storefront™ or NGS — a new standard for airline data presentation. These tools together with airline Rich Content Provider Routehappy, which ATPCO acquired in 2018, are boosting airline merchandising. Today we explain how NGS works and what you need to adopt it.
What is the Next Generation Storefront?
Next Generation Storefront is a set of data standards for showcasing airlines’ offers online. NGS brings consistency to how product offerings are displayed across the airline distribution ecosystem. By integrating its capabilities, sales channels are able to present airlines’ offers in a well-structured and easy-to-compare way.
The first NGS standard for the U.S. domestic market was built in 2019 by ATPCO in response to the lack of consistency when displaying airline products and services for consumers.
More and more travel data aggregators are joining forces to help develop and spread the standard.
Sabre GDS is among the early NGS adopters. Its latest NGS-enabled air shopping API categorizes airline offerings by product attributes and normalizes the data for easy comparison shopping.
Together with online booking tool WhereTo and Travel Technology Solutions, Travelport is working to offer NGS capabilities. Travelport’s latest API, Trip Services, powered by NGS will present airlines’ offerings by fare families and their ancillaries. This will allow all of the company’s partner travel agencies to display more flight options and information for travelers. Travelport is also planning to facilitate NGS comparisons across its travel agency desktop solution — Smartpoint.
After integrating Routehappy rich content into its Travel Platform, Amadeus is also working with ATPCO on the NGS initiative.
How NGS works: shelves, drawers, and customization
When an OTA or TMC booking engine receives a shopping request, it gathers itineraries and airline offerings meeting the input criteria. NGS allows it to present the search result in an organized manner and according to the standard, namely, to organize multiple offers from multiple airlines in a single shopping result.
Let’s cover the main concepts to understand how the NGS organization works and how it can be customized.
The NGS display is a grid with rows — each containing offers from a single airline — and columns called shelves. A shelf is a downward set of NGS offers grouped based on certain product attribute criteria. If no airline’s product meets the criteria for the shelf, it remains empty.
It can also happen that multiple offers resolve to the same shelf.
Qualification attributes. Qualification attributes define product placement on a shelf. As of now, ATPCO has clearly identified the following Qualification Attributes relevant to the US Domestic NGS standard. Each attribute has a corresponding set of values that define the order of the shelf.
- Seat Type: Angle Lie Flat, Full Flat Seat, Middle Seat Free, Private Suite, Recliner Seat, Skycouch, and Standard Seat
- Predominant seat pitch in inches
- Advance Seat Selection: permitted or restricted
- Carry-on Allowance: for a charge, free, or not permitted
- Advance Changes indicates the ability to change the itinerary for free
- Cabin Type: Business, Economy, First, Premium Business, Premium Economy, and Premium First.
However, NGS is a data-agnostic open standard; it doesn’t dictate how the data must be presented. Well, it does place offers into shelves using a dedicated algorithm, which we covered in our implementation guide. But it’s up to the channel to decide how to arrange shelves and select drawer attributes.
“Where there are standards for NGS, we adhere to them. Where there aren’t standards, we’ve made decisions that are in the best interest of our customers, their travelers, and our supplier partners,” tells Daniel Finkel, a VP of Booking Experience and Supplier Strategy at TripActions, a business travel platform, about building their instance of NGS from scratch.
ATPCO encourages channels to look at different ways of managing the placement of offers based on the consumers’ needs and intent. “ If I am a family traveler, seating and baggage are more important to me than changeability, whereas if I am a business traveler, baggage is less important but changeability is very important, “ says Megan Humphries, Head of Communications at ATPCO.
We asked TripActions how they prioritize the shelves. “ We display and personalize the content on the shelves based on the traveler’s profile and preferences, past booking behavior and their company’s travel policy so that the individual sees search results that are personalized to them,” answered Daniel.
As the shelf can’t fit all the rich content of an offer, it comes with a drawer — a drop-down list containing its qualification attributes together with non-qualification attributes, which enrich the offer but don’t define its placement. Each leg of an NGS offer gets a separate drawer.
Non-qualification attributes. These attributes are divided into elements — subsets of an attribute — that have separate values identified for each of them. Element “Exists” is a decisive one. If it values “No,” it means that this attribute isn’t available for the particular offer. Here’s the list of non-qualification attributes:
- Access to an aisle from every cabin seat;
- Beverage: Alcoholic/Nonalcoholic, free/paid;
- Entertainment cost and type: Live TV, Loop, On-Demand, Overhead, Pre-Download, Seatback, Streaming, Tablet;
- Food cost and type: Light Meal, Meal, Premium Meal, Premium Snack, Snack;
- Power type: Adapter, a power outlet, USB port;
- Wi-Fi cost and what it supports: Email and Messaging, live streaming, web browsing;
- Checked Baggage allowance according to IATA Resolution 302/DOT regulations;
- Lounge Access availability and its cost;
- Priority Boarding availability and its cost;
- Ability to get a refund and its cost.
In addition to the standard NGS attributes, sales channels can mention other airline- or flight-specific information in the drawer. However, this data won’t influence the shelf placement algorithm.
NGS uses a rating system to indicate product quality. By default, it uses stars that mark each of the shelves to show their value from left to right. But aiming at greater customization within the standard, ATPCO gave sales channels the freedom to replace it with any custom combination of text, icons, or graphics that clearly demonstrates the commonality and progression among the shelves.
NGS benefits for airlines, sales channels, and passengers
NGS seems to be a win-win for all the parties involved:
Airlines. NGS allows for automatically personalizing and standardizing their offerings, in many languages as well, which ultimately increases their upsell.
Sales channels. Each airline has its own way of defining, branding, and sharing data. Using NGS, channels don’t have to align diverse airline’ content to their reselling method. At the same time, NGS empowers channels to provide meaningful comparison shopping with far more attributes than good old price and availability.
Passengers. They can easily navigate through the offerings, get all the necessary info at a glance, and a detailed comparison of the available services. As an NGS display shows all the product-related data, consumers are well-informed about what they are paying for and what’s not included in the price, so there are no hidden fees or disappointing surprises.
How a channel can adopt NGS step-by-step
While NGS is just a framework, its deployment is a channel’s responsibility and it includes a fair amount of engineering effort.
So, let’s look at the steps to take to adopt the NGS standard.
Step 1: Get the needed data
The NGS standard doesn’t depend on a specific data source. “ Any provider, airline, or aggregator can take source content and present it in the NGS standard form,” assures Megan Humphries.
Here are the main sources for sales channels to pull the airline data from:
- Global Distribution Systems,
- flight schedules providers Innovata and OAG,
- fares provider ATPCO,
- ancillary distributors like Routehappy.
One content integration method doesn’t exclude the other. In fact, OTAs and TMCs leverage multiple sources and then mesh their content together. For example, TripActions pulls fare data via NDC direct connections and through GDSs, mainly Sabre, and combines it with Routehappy rich content. “ We get information from Routehappy to power our rich content, including amenity descriptions, cabin photos, and the like to enrich the online shopping experience for our customers.”
Step 2: Standardize the acquired data into attributes
NGS augments existing offers with up to 16 data attributes. Six of them are Qualification Attributes responsible for shelf placement, while the other ten complement the offer with additional information that helps users compare their options and select the best choice.
For accurate comparison and filtering, it’s important to have common and searchable attributes across all participating airlines. If attributes are airline-specific such as upgrade eligibility and mileage accrual, classify them as non-qualification ones. This way they don’t impact shelf placement.
Step 3: Create NGS offers
Before applying the shelf placement algorithm, do the following NGS offer creation processes:
- Determine the prices and services.
- Identify brand information for each airline.
- Make sure all the itinerary points — both ticketed and un-ticketed — are within the defined geography.
- Check for no opt-out airlines on the itinerary. Should there be any opt-outs, either operational or marketing, shelf placement for their NGS offers won’t be determined.
Step 4: Determine shelf placement for the NGS offer
Analyzing the given qualification attributes values, the shelf placement algorithm determines the shelf they correspond to.
For example, if the Seat Pitch is less than 34 inches, Seat Type is Standard, and one or none of the following values is present, then the offer belongs to Shelf 1:
Shelf placement algorithm
- Advance Changes is “Free” or “For a Fee,”
- Advance Seat Selection is “Permitted,”
- Carry-on Allowance is “First Carry-on Free.”
If an NGS offer consists of multiple legs, determine shelf placement for each leg first. And if legs have a different shelf placement, an NGS offer is placed on the spot of the leg with the highest mileage.
ATPCO NGS API
Now that ATPCO NGS Working and Advisory Groups have developed a dedicated Application Programming Interface, sales channels can take the easier way rather than in-house implementation. Conform to the ATPCO NGS standard and you can integrate the API to build out your versions of NGS.
Taking priced itineraries as the input, the API returns:
- all agreed NGS attributes,
- scores for each itinerary or leg,
- all supporting data for the star rating,
- grouping data.
Challenges of NGS adoption
Presently, there is only the US Domestic Version of NGS. And the standard is still being defined as it has certain shortcomings and difficulties in implementation.
Fluctuations in categorization. Some travel managers say that even with NGS categorization, shopping is still quite confusing as airlines include different amenities and use different names for them. The rating system fails in cases when there’s a vague difference between the products. For instance, it’s not reasonable to put low-cost carrier fares along with major carrier basic economy fares on the one-star shelf.
Favoring higher fares. Some consumers complain that NGS shelf placement isn’t objective.
While corporate travel policies allow workers to book rates a certain percentage higher than the lowest available fare, NGS drives travelers toward more expensive bookings that are still within the threshold, claims Jennie Robertson, InVision travel manager.
Products mapping. TripActions admits that the most difficult part in deploying NGS was to differentiate the amenities and features of the operating carrier in contrast to the ones of the marketing carrier. “ Our teams had to undertake quite a bit of engineering and mapping work to make everything come together,” admits Daniel Finkel.
But as NGS is the first of its kind, inaccuracies are inevitable. And obviously, the benefit it brings to the airline retailing is worth the struggle. Understanding that, many airlines are giving ultimatums to their distributors: Either they adopt NGS to meet the airline’s display demands or the airline will withdraw its content. So if you’re selling flight and ancillaries services, it may be the time to transform your online storefront with NGS.
Originally published at AltexSoft tech blog “Next Generation Storefront™ for Airlines and Travel Sales Channels: Building a Consistent Shopping Display”