Interview with Jonathan Savitch, Chief Commercial Officer, ATPCO
4th January, 2021
Travelers have new variables to consider, ones that are related to health and safety in addition to pricing and other attributes.
As a key player in the flight shopping process, ATPCO has worked on initiatives to present critical health, safety, and booking info in a way that is easy for channels to consume and understand by travelers at a quick glance.
Ai’s Ritesh Gupta spoke to ATPCO’s Chief Commercial Officer, Jonathan Savitch, about what’s on ATPCO’s agenda. Excerpts:
What are the issues that airlines today are trying to cope up with as far as the overall passenger experience is concerned, right from shopping to actual traveling?
Jonathan Savitch: The single most important issue is consumer sentiment about flying during a pandemic, specifically making sure passengers understand all the attributes about traveling safely. For example, mask policies, cleaning measures, blocked seats, vaccine certificates, and more.
Back in March, the first thing ATPCO did was reallocate our retailing capabilities—both our technology and research teams—to make sense of what was going on globally. While everyone was reacting to COVID-19, there were key differences among airlines and countries. Some focused first on cleanliness, others looked at capacity. In any case, it was obvious to us that we could help structure and normalize these various attributes so airlines could communicate their respective approaches easily, in all channels. That was really a no-brainer: we knew those things were going to matter more than Wi-Fi or food, for example. Hard to believe we were merchandising food and beverages on board less than a year ago, isn’t it?
What have been the biggest challenges that the airline industry faced during the crisis? How has ATPCO acted to ensure the industry comes out stronger?
Jonathan Savitch: Well, keep in mind that airlines are still very much “in the thick of it” and this is by far the worst crisis airlines have faced. There are some parallels with 9/11 and the financial crisis of 2008 but this is considerably worse. The impacts will be felt for years, even after broad distribution of a vaccine.
The immediate issues seem insurmountable, particularly massive cuts in demand with no apparent end in sight. But we do see glimmers of what a recovery might look like: domestic travel will rebound before international and leisure will likely recover before business. Airlines will first make sure cargo flows effectively—especially for vaccines and other essential goods. They’ll work to fill seats and, after that, to optimize revenue. Those trends are really sort of timeless, but what’s really changed is that our industry no longer has the luxury of time. We can’t take years to get new content or types of offers out; airlines need ‘bite sized’ innovation, i.e., things they can do now—immediately—with the infrastructure in place. Once minimum viable products are available, airlines, systems, and channels can then iterate. For example, they’ll all need structured content and APIs so key attributes can be added to an offer, with vaccine certificates being an obvious one.
In a lot of ways that’s about leveraging existing capabilities differently. For example, airlines will still want to talk about space—but it’ll be messaged about safety more than luxury. That may be true in all cabins—some travelers may want assurances about the seat immediately next to one they purchased. Easy creation, merchandising, and distribution of optional services will be essential; vaccine certificates or travel insurance are also good examples. Specific to pricing, we also created Rapid Fare Update to help airlines get prices and products to market as quickly as possible—they can’t work with old-school workflows.
The only real certainty is uncertainty, so we’re focused on helping the airlines manage change as efficiently as we possibly can.
Travelers have new variables to consider, ones that are related to health and safety in addition to pricing and other attributes. How has ATPCO worked with airlines and other stakeholders to ensure the flight shopping experience is streamlined as per today’s requirements?
Jonathan Savitch: That was really the first thing we did. We reallocated a good chunk of our retailing capabilities in March and by April, we rolled out Reassurance UPAs (Universal Product Attributes) to address customer confidence in air travel. The key goal was to present critical health, safety, and booking information in a way that was easy for channels to consume and understand by travelers at a quick glance. We rolled this out quickly with 100 airlines using infographic-based content. Then, as our channel partners began to integrate these, we quickly realized we needed to evolve this into a structured set of data covering the full industry, so our Structured UPAs now cover 5 main categories: Cleaning, Masks, Temperature Checks, Blocked Seats, and Passenger Capacity. We’re also now in the initial process of expanding this data set to testing and vaccination requirements as those start to appear.
This new retailing content now covers nearly all of the global flight schedule (99 percent). This really helped airlines, systems, and channels deal with the pace and complexity of global travel during a pandemic.
How is ATPCO working on plans to enable airlines communicate various aspects of travel better, for instance, details related to a cancellation, refund, fee related to a change in an itinerary, emergency policies etc.?
Jonathan Savitch: After the pandemic started, airlines and agencies/channels were in a big predicament with cancellations and refunds on previously issued tickets. In June we announced Emergency Flexibility with other industry partners, and were able to automate a solution enabling airlines to process the mounting travel changes arising out of pandemic travel restrictions.
Airlines were and still are seeing an extensive amount of previously issued tickets that need to be changed, often more than once. Airlines, systems, and channels needed an automated way to apply current or new voluntary changes and refunds so they could be quickly communicated to travelers.
Can you elaborate on how ATPCO is looking to produce consistent pricing and retailing results from data that airlines provide?
Jonathan Savitch: We create the consistency through data, standards, and governance.
We have over 10,000 unique data points that airlines can use to describe an airline product. With this many elements each airline product can be as unique as they wish, and the price can be very accurately defined. Each data element is defined in a detailed set of standards that is available and used by all receivers of the data. Our governance process includes an established advisory committee of airlines and systems that use it, and any issues or discrepancy in the pricing can be raised and corrected enabling consistency.
How is ATPCO playing its part in making the most of price-related decisions?
Jonathan Savitch: We constantly evolve the data and standards to allow the airlines to continue to innovate their pricing. We have taken a leadership role in the industry to create dynamic pricing capabilities. We have over 40 airlines currently using the first of these of capabilities, i.e., Dual RBD (Reservation Booking Designator), which enables airlines to offer more price points.
Airlines possibly are going to come up with new offers from time to time, depending upon the recovery curve for various markets. How is ATPCO helping in getting offers to market faster?
We have established an extremely robust and flexible way for airlines to add new services and prices for those services. The immediate need of the airlines has been to have flexibility on changes and refunds, and we have created a recovery focused task force to expedite delivery of these solutions. In a matter of weeks, we also created industry wide capabilities, which typically would had taken over a year to deliver.
We are currently working on applying this learning to create other servicing and new product generation capabilities as needed by the airlines.
What’s on ATPCO agenda for 2021?
Jonathan Savitch: A big part of our job—and certainly our major theme in 2021—is to reduce friction between airlines, systems, and channels. It’ll be a challenging year, even after a vaccine is deployed. We need to continue our focus on getting all relevant content—even those we haven’t thought of yet—to all channels and allowing airlines more ownership in creating their own messages, for example any travel advisories they need to communicate.
I think Reassurance UPAs were a great example of that and we now need to look more carefully at getting those types of content to all cannels even more quickly and easily. On that front, it’ll be a huge help to have our new CEO Alex Zoghlin, the founder of Orbitz with deep technical acumen, helping to lead us through 2021 and beyond.