With decades spent working in corporate travel, the Cornerstone Information Systems team and CEO Mat Orrego are used to change – and NDC is just the latest change, the latest challenge.
“We live in the middle of airlines, GDSs, and TMCs, and we’re used to changing over the past 30 years,” says Mat. Mat describes Cornerstone as “an automation company that exists to make reservations as seamless and accurate and complete as possible – millions of reservations on a daily basis.” Cornerstone works across the travel and corporate environment, and recently started facilitating data transfer between expense and ERP systems, but is best known for its work in corporate travel “mid-office.” Mid-office includes tasks like automating airline schedule change handling, applying travel policies and orchestrating pre-trip approvals, cleaning and passing data between systems – from the online booking tool and GDS over to TMC systems, to duty of care, expense, ERP, and analytics providers – and more.*
And a lot has changed, creating work and opportunity for Cornerstone. 30 years ago all corporate travel was booked over the phone with travel agents using GDS greenscreens, with agents handling many of the mid-office tasks. Now bookings are split with a majority through online booking tools and a portion still with agents – “I've got customers that have five booking processes, including human beings, so we centralize and consistently apply policy.”
Global Distribution Systems (GDS) greenscreen screenscraping to GDS APIs
30 years ago Cornerstone used GDS greenscreen screenscraping to automate mid-office tasks. “In the beginning, we were screen scraping, we had our way with that GDS, could issue any command that I ever wanted to enter that GDS.” But then: “That’s not the way it works anymore, now we work through GDS APIs with a limited set of data and capabilities and rigidity.”
And in the last 15 years, Cornerstone has started working with leisure travel-focused online travel agencies (OTAs): “Today we process 50% leisure and 50% business travel, we work a lot with very large OTAs doing value-added processing for them” like automating schedule change processing, traveler messaging and more.
This last piece of business has exposed Cornerstone to millions of airline direct connect and NDC bookings: “We’ve been in the world of of NDC and working with [direct connect technology provider] Accelya – formerly known as Farelogix – bookings for a while now on behalf of large OTAs, so we've seen the good, the bad and the not-so-great aspects of that – it's a different world that that you're automating.”
How so? One example is schedule changes. “You're dealing with a supplier now that takes full responsibility for transactions and now on a schedule change when they want to make a change, they just make the change, there’s no more ‘acceptance’ of it. Whereas in the GDS world, you had to accept the change, and before accepting you could remediate the change with more flexibility to change flights.” For minor schedule changes this isn’t a big deal, for major schedule changes it requires rebuilding automation – which can lead to more overhead, more calls to agents in call centers to handle these schedule changes. Unused ticket and ticket exchange handling face similar change.
“NDC transactions and bookings are kind of thin on data” compared to GDS bookings, missing some details that GDSs provide and don’t allow agencies to store non-airline data like GDS PNRs do. But Mat laughs and quickly adds: “I'm not proposing that we continue writing novels in the GDS PNR the way a lot of agencies do – I spent some time with a client the other day, they very specifically said ‘well, we need to put everything in this PNR so that the next step in the process can do its thing,’ and I said ‘that's untenable!’”
Cornerstone on becoming NDC Ready
Cornerstone takes the same approach to these NDC changes that they always take: “We're pretty well prepared, but we in our world, we rely on there being transactions to automate: we build out functionality for handling NDC, then it’s trial and error to automate the full workflow automation – you have to have transactions to make sure it works.”
This is a challenge for the rest of the corporate travel industry like GDSs, TMCs, OBTs and other providers: they won’t be NDC ready until they too have both integrated and run transactions, the latter to ensure that their integrations work correctly.
But Mat’s optimistic for the long run: “I think it'll ultimately be simpler, even if it’s an issue of integration in the short run – but mid-office and corporate travel has always been an issue of integration and workflow. And today’s modern infrastructure, modern programming, open APIs should facilitate this change.”
Postscript: What, you ask, does this have to do with AmTrav? Two things. First, we find Cornerstone and this topic fascinating, and we think portions of our audience might too. Second, we’re NDC optimists, eager to promote fellow corporate travel companies who are working to modernize airline retailing and servicing for corporate customers.
*Let’s call this all “behind-the-scenes magic.” For example booking systems like OBTs and agents and GDSs allow travelers to make bookings, and those bookings have some information about the itinerary and the cost, but those bookings don’t include a lot of additional information that companies need to have associated with that booking to understand and analyze that booking. Information like the policy applied and policy compliance, like the optional billing fields and employee IDs, like the alternative itinerary options not taken. This data may not come through consistently – or at all – from different booking systems, so Cornerstone steps in and provides it.