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If there’s one skill the pandemic has sharpened, it’s the art of online shopping.

It’s also the mission of airfare data firm ATPCO (formerly known as the Airline Tariff Publishing Company). Its Routehappy division helps airlines improve the way they display information when retailing seats, while its so-called next generation storefront allows agencies and other sellers to sort and group increasingly complex airline fares.

However, coronavirus and other factors have upended the storefront’s priorities.

A New Chapter

“There’s been a bit of a pause on the development,” said Seth Anagnostis, Routehappy’s head of retailing.

“When we set out, our intent was to provide a visual, visceral way of seeing what modern flight shopping is like. We map out consistent shelves, to compare airline A’s product to airline’s B data on a particular flight.”

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At first, the idea was to define how airlines compare their products — for example, does the seat have a screen? — on different routes, but Anagnostis said it ended up with a scenario where there were going to be so many permutations of what the different “shelves” needed to look like.

Now ATPCO will focus on creating the best standards via its storefront platform, and leave it to agencies and other sellers to choose for themselves how to make those comparisons for their specific customers.

A corporate online booking tool will probably want to be able to display different airfare features compared to how a leisure-focused metasearch website sells tickets. “For example, if a business traveler didn’t know their travel manager had negotiated extra things like extra legroom or lounge access, the storefront would allow a way for those offers to be compared and displayed relative to one another,” he said.

And with more airlines now making their different products available through the so-called new distribution capability standard, or even excusive fare types this way, ATPCO is now factoring these in. American Airlines for example launched its Main Plus product in February, which takes the main cabin economy package and adds an additional free checked bag, a main cabin extra seat, and group five boarding (ahead of other economy passengers), according to Duffel.

Anagnostis claimed the storefront provides an “understandable way of bringing the amazing innovations that are happening in new distribution capability to life.”

More Change Coming

Early last year, and practically overnight as Covid-19 swept the globe, whether or not a flight included extra legroom or lounge access was no longer a priority. ATPCO’s storefront also had to change in tandem.

“If we’d continued to press on with comparative shopping that focused only on the hard product in 2020, everyone would have said ‘wait a minute, I care about completely different things flying in 2020 than I did in 2019,’” said Anagnostis.

Part of the response was to create “Reassurance” Universal Product Attributes, via Routehappy, and 125 airlines were able to communicate their own Covid-19 policies and responses.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, the strorefront will likely next factor in how airlines communicate vaccine requirements, or display which of the digital health passports they accept. And while mask mandates remain, in the not-too-distant future some airlines could soon decide to change these sorts of policies.

ATPCO isn’t the only travel technology company innovating in airline distribution of course, and during its pause Sabre announced its own “new generation storefront” in March this year.

“ATPCO has shifted their approach and will no longer provide a NGS algorithm. Instead of a certified algorithm they are moving toward providing a comprehensive set of standardized data attributes which the global distribution system can use to provide the storefront,” Sabre said on its website.

It also said it would continue collaborating with ATPCO to create data standards which will be used in its new airline storefront.

Is Sabre trying to steal ATPCO’s thunder, or carry the baton?

“It looks great,” Anagnostis said. “They’re a big initial player in what we were building with NGS in 2019. We’re thrilled to see them using Routehappy content and other ATPCO data, to figure out that Sabre agents, or users of GetThere, are actually going to care about completely different things than other channels will.”

Branding Power

There’s also the question over whether travel agencies will market their platform as ATPCO storefront-powered. In some way it brings a level of consistency that’s needed, especially considering the varying health protocols and standards airlines will be rolling out.

“To what degree companies want to brand it in on their own, like Sabre’s storefront, or they’ll say we are literally using ATPCO’s next generation storefront, we’re going to come together with the industry in the coming months to figure out what the right balance is there,” Anagnostis said.

“(But) almost any company that is going to build a storefront is going to use some form of ATPCO data, whether Routehappy to build out the retailing components, or traditional ATPCO pricing content,” he added.

ATPCO does already have a fair few technology-focused corporate travel agencies backing the name, however, with the likes of TravelBank, AmTrav and TripActions, among others.

Wider Scopes

Meanwhile, as ATPCO recalibrates its storefront, it appears to be upgrading another of its platforms, NDC Exchange. In January, it bought a fare management system from SITA (Société Internationale de Télécommunications Aéronautiques), a technology provider that is also run by the airlines.

NDC Exchange collates new distribution capability from airlines, and provides APIs, or application programming interfaces, that agencies and aggregators can plug in to.

But one aggregator, which preferred to remain anonymous, told Skift the connections were “very painful …. we try to minimize our connections with NDC Exchange as much as possible.”

They also added they had expected ATPCO to integrate Routehappy data into NDC Exchange. “It would have made their product very interesting, from an agency perspective, but they haven’t.”

ATPCO told Skift it was currently “making integrations more seamless from NDC Exchange,” and that “essentially Routehappy content is available for NDC Exchange sellers at the airline’s direction, so long as that airline is subscribed to Routehappy content it can be shared. In its current state, the seller may have to consume the Routehappy content via a separate API, but we can still make it available nonetheless.”

Another aggregator also found integrations difficult. “Global distribution systems and all non-global distribution system aggregators like us, are doing our best at merging and enabling comparison of new distribution capability content in one single screen, and the storefront or ATPCO are not helping too much,” said Jorge Diaz, CEO of AirGateway

He also voiced frustration at the storefront. “We’ve been following the initiative but it seems more a theoretical exercise than a real thing, like many things in this industry,” he said.

But for now ATPCO, along with its many airline partners, is doubling down on travel’s recovery.

Speaking at a Foundation Industry Stand-Up, American Airlines said its sales strategy was to be the easiest airline to do business with.

“Main Plus is offered through our NDC-enabled channels, and our ticket sales centers, and how cool is it that we can create rich content to highlight this offer, since many of our NDC channels are plugged into Routehappy,” said Cleary Puchley, online distribution strategy manager at American Airlines.

“We’re focused on providing customers with a seamless booking experience, regardless of the channel they choose to use. Routehappy has helped us to look to our marketing assets and work with teams to execute quickly,” she added.

As well as American Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Airways are also onboard  with the next generation storefront. Offering more types of airfares is important for airlines, but crucially it will help passengers feel more in control after the pandemic.

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Photo Credit: Airlines are getting more creative in how they price and bundle their airfares. Toa Heftiba / Unsplash