GENEVA - Iím a big believer in speed and innovation. When youíre starting from a blank sheet of paper itís much easier to embed these qualities within an organization. For an industry like aviation, itís a good deal more challenging. Safety is paramount and there are no shortcuts. New airplane designs typically come along once or twice a decade. Getting approval for a new runway can take longer. And because individual airlines are both competitors and part of a globally-connected transportation network, systems need to be able to talk to one another, which further complicates radical innovation.

A good example is how we distribute our product. While airline websites are powered by internet language (XML), the systems that we use for distributing our products through travel agents and online travel sites are largely based on pre-internet technology dating back to the 1970s. These are very good at certain thingsórapid transaction processing and aggregating thousands of different fare and flight combinations very rapidly. But they are less successful at providing detailed information about products and features, beyond the fare and service class, nor allowing product comparisons among different airlines. On a screen where a single letter denotes business class, itís pretty hard to see how one airlineís product stacks up against anotherís.

In todayís online retailing world, this makes little sense. How many items would Amazon sell if all you had to look at was an order number and a price, with very little access to product information and features?

As you may know, IATA is addressing this gap through the New Distribution Capability, which is an industry supported program for the development and market adoption of a new, XML-based data transmission standard that will enable travel agents to have access to the same types of product information that you see when you shop directly on an airline website. 

Because the NDC standard is based on XML, not legacy technology, it has much broader appeal to software coders. And to stimulate their creativity, we have been holding a series of hackathons around the globe.

An NDC hackathon is an intense 36-48 hour event (sleep is an option!) where we bring together dozens of enthusiastic coders, put them in a workspace and challenge them to create something to support the air traveler or the travel industry, using the NDC technical standard. Our most recent hackathon was held at my alma mater, …cole Polytechnique and attracted nearly 100 participants in 24 teams.

The hackathons are more than exercises in stimulating innovation and fresh thinking. The best ideas receive a 6-week incubation phase to ensure they have the potential to develop into successful products, with the possibility to share them at industry forums.

As an alumni and a strong believer in the young generation, I feel very proud of the part we are playing to bring airline distribution into the world of online retailing. With NDC we will be giving our customers a better shopping experience by enabling them to view and compare all their air travel options, and to receive offers customized to their preferences, regardless of how they choose to shop for a ticket. And who knows what great new ideas for travelers will come out of our next hackathon (in India) early next year?