Devon Biondi | VP, Strategy Services
October 25, 2012

APIs: That’s The Ticket


Change doesn’t always happen at the front end. Sometimes, it starts behind the scenes, revolutionizing policies and procedures, before we as consumers undergo huge shifts in our own behavior. Even more often, that’s what an API does. 

We thought about this recently when reading about how the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is developing a new API.  Most of us don’t have a reason to think about IATA—it’s just a trade association serving a specific industry.  That said, it represents some 240 airlines, along with other organizations, that collectively comprise 84% of total air traffic. For those of us who have spent time railing about lost luggage or delayed flights, and wondered why an industry built around sophisticated equipment can’t get the basics right, IATA is in the eye of the storm.

Sure, it’s  more fun to look at what big, recognizable companies are doing with APIs. When third parties and media ask us about what’s new, they’re usually looking for something on familiar brands. At Mashery we work with a lot of those enterprises, and we’re happy to talk about how they’re capitalizing on opportunities provided by a comprehensive API strategy. But again, the real change can be behind the scenes, and at a trade group most of us have never heard of.

Take IATA and its role in the air transportation industry. No part of this business can function in a vacuum—it’s a sprawling, international  ecosystem that spans every aspect of the global market, from basic transportation to regulatory compliance. Airlines must criss-cross international boundaries while operating within national regulations. Airports must meet individual concerns around convenience while complying with security mandates. Travel agencies must worry about everything from handbags to hijacking.

And then there’s the simple act of ticket buying. This is where the ‘change’ comes in.

The IATA’s distribution working group met at its World Passenger Symposium in Abu Dhabi recently and voted on a motion to establish a New Distribution Capability. That in turn is designed to lead to the development of a Dynamic Airline Shopping (DAS) API next year. The API is supposed to function as an interface between participating airlines and existing fare distributers, such as the Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) that serve travel agents and other industry management companies.

So what’s the big deal? Well, the new arrangement essentially upends the existing model. The current system enables carriers to file fares with GDSs, which agents and consumers can then access; under the new system, GDSs and customers must submit travel requests, with personal data and other details, and airlines can then respond with customized offers.

That’s a huge change, and it’s strictly behind the scenes. However, by significantly altering the process of airfare comparisons, it has the potential to drastically alter conventional ticket-buying processes for professionals and consumers alike. It’s perhaps not a surprise, then, that there’s already resistance.

Numerous travel trade groups have voiced concerns, as has Travelport, a major player in the GDS arena.  For the record, Travelport maintains that  “standards are an important aspect of the technology landscape in that they have the capacity to greatly improve the product offering and the customer experience.” That said, it wants to ensure that the new standards still address the needs of all links in the travel supply chain.

Comparison shopping, the core issue here, is clearly a volatile process—it’s a boon for consumers and both a blessing and a curse for vendors. The larger takeaway is that in a marketplace and infrastructure that’s reliant on diverse platforms and technologies, a single API can enable significant change. How each organization handles the change, however, is another issue altogether.