New Distribution Capability (NDC) is gaining speed in the air travel industry — and many organizations are undergoing major transformations in order to make enhanced distribution strategies a reality.
At ARC, we knew we had to proactively create a settlement solution that was flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of distribution needs — a foundation we could build upon to create more efficient, reliable and scalable opportunities for the future.
In February, we accomplished our first major milestone to enable NDC implementations for the U.S. agency channel: ARC’s enhanced settlement platform. With British Airways as a testing partner, we implemented critical changes that enable a vast range of distribution strategies for airlines. This was one of the most high-profile projects ARC has undertaken in recent years.
This project was instrumental, not just for ARC, but for all of our industry partners. We took a big idea and, through methodical, iterative work, created a new solution — the first step to enabling large-scale NDC implementations between airlines and U.S. travel agencies.
I would like to share the journey of ARC’s first major NDC project from inception to completion, what we learned along the way, and how we will leverage those learnings to enhance future projects at ARC.
When a software development project is kicked off, each team member starts with a different level of understanding of the tasks at hand. One of the primary objectives of the discovery phase is to get everyone on the same page. During this phase, the team members also have an opportunity to get to know each other and understand what is expected of them.
Members participating in project discovery might vary; however, at a minimum, they include: a project manager, a product owner, a business analyst, a technical lead and a test lead. During the NDC discovery phase, the team identified that modifications would be required for literally every step of the settlement process.
The team held several meetings during this phase and did a deep dive to understand the dependencies and relationships between proposed changes to ARC’s settlement system and defined a solution based on their technical and subject matter expertise.
Our high-level solution was to set up an NDC-participating airline as a system provider and assign a non-overlapping form code range for each document type, including e-ticket, electronic miscellaneous document (EMD) and miscellaneous charges order (MCO). Once NDC transactions are isolated using these criteria, custom/flexible treatments could be applied in downstream applications and processes such as Interactive Agent Reporting (IAR) and credit billing.
One of the key objectives of this project was to enable increased flexibility for airline-agency partnerships. We ensured ARC’s enhanced settlement solution would be highly configurable to meet a wide variety of airline distribution strategies.
The following were the key deliverables of the discovery phase:
- Scope Definition
- High-level Solution
- Project Estimation
- Resource Needs
- Knowledge – Does the team have all the information it needs to start the execution phase?
- Support – What support, if any, is needed from outside the core team?
- Skills – Do we have the required skills on the team or do we need training?
- Environments – Do we have the development and QA environments to begin execution?
- Project planning including iteration breakdown
The discovery phase creates a solid foundation that ultimately enables project success. It’s important to give this phase the time it deserves. Thorough research, conducted up front and shared among all team members, is key to keeping a project on track and anticipating future challenges.
During the discovery phase, the team decided to adopt an iterative development process to effectively handle the complexity of the changes involved. Iterative development is a way of breaking down the software development of a large application into smaller, more manageable pieces. In iterative development, feature code is designed, developed and tested in repeated cycles with plenty of review and input from internal and external stakeholders along the way. With each iteration, additional features can be designed, developed and tested until there is a fully functional software application ready to be deployed to customers.
The total scope was divided into five iterations, followed by an external testing iteration with British Airways. Each iteration included functionality that was designed, developed and tested in a three-week period. In the first iteration, the team implemented conversion of the RET file into SPRF format so that NDC transactions could be fed into the ARC transaction ingestion process. The team focused on an initial, simplified implementation with NDC sales. After successfully building that foundation, the following iterations progressively added more complexity and a broader set of features, such as exchanges, refunds and voids.
We took a big idea and, through methodical, iterative work, created a new solution.
Apart from implementing new functionality, each iteration also included tasks that laid additional groundwork (spikes) — including feasibility analysis and proof of concepts for future iterations. Spikes are a great way for teams to scope out work that may not be fully understood before execution begins.
Another important aspect of the execution phase was periodic checkpoint meetings with the implementation partner, British Airways. At the end of each iteration, the team met with British Airways to seek validation and applied any identified course corrections to stay on track. We intentionally included every team member in our checkpoint meetings to ensure clear, consistent communication and alignment throughout the project.
These meetings equipped us to quickly respond to new information. One example is that, after one iteration, British Airways notified the team that they would not provide credit card information for transactions with credit card as form of payment (FOP). British Airways only wanted ARC to process cash transactions, and commission settlement for credit card transactions. However, the output reports had to include credit card transactions along with cash sales for reconciliation purposes. The team had to come up with a creative solution to ensure our partner’s business requirements were being met. Because of our iterative approach, they were able to solve the problem efficiently without impacting delivery timelines.
We intentionally included every team member in our checkpoint meetings to ensure clear, consistent communication and alignment throughout the project.
An iterative development process creates a sense of urgency and slight pressure so that value on the project is continuously delivered and measured. By not adopting an iterative approach, you not only maintain a horizontal line that is too distant and allows for too much slack — but you also create a blurred vision of exactly what you need to deliver and when. Short feedback loops are one of the key benefits to the success of an iterative process because they enable teams to identify potential issues early and adjust in a timely manner.
In a perfect world, every time a major release is implemented, it would flawlessly work in the production environment. There would never be any bugs or any unforeseen scenarios that were missed during development and testing. However, sometimes an edge-case scenario that was never considered by the team does arise. It’s critical to react in a timely manner when you encounter such bugs post-implementation. There were a few of these issues after the NDC implementation, which the team was able to address without impacting any Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
Post-implementation issues should be discussed at a retrospective meeting to ensure that the project team is on the same page regarding the root cause, and how to avoid or more effectively handle similar issues in the future.
Past projects of comparable size took anywhere between eight and 12 months to complete using the traditional waterfall methodology. Using an iterative development process, ARC’s NDC implementation was completed in five months and was delivered as per project plan and agreed-upon timelines.
By including our entire team, both internal and external stakeholders, throughout the project, we ensured clear communication and maintained momentum. An added benefit of an inclusive, iterative approach is the increased synergy and shared ownership of the project by the entire team, from beginning to end.
Using an iterative development process, ARC’s NDC implementation was completed in five months and was delivered as per project plan and agreed-upon timelines.
This project established a solid foundation for ARC’s NDC capabilities, and it was a critical first step to building out our vision for the future. It also enabled us to collaborate closely with an external partner to deliver a solution that would not only meet their needs, but also deliver value to the travel industry as a whole, creating a more flexible future for all of us. In a recent Q&A, British Airways shared that they found the thorough discovery phase valuable, and that our project was well-managed and delivered on time.
To make major initiatives a reality, it’s critical to break them down into achievable steps that generate progress. With careful planning, short feedback loops and an iterative approach, teams that work small can achieve big things, bringing even the most ambitious ideas to life.