Zeno Labs Live

United’s Tye Radcliffe Talks NDC and the Future of Distribution

23 March 2021

United Airlines Director of Distribution Tye Radcliffe sat down with Zeno Live host Tony D’Astolfo of Serko. The pair discuss where United is on its NDC journey, Tye’s perspective on GDS and TMC timelines for NDC investment, and potential breakout stars in the third-party NDC technology space. 

Tye makes some optimistic predictions about business travel’s recovery and Tony ushers him into the Zeno Zone to answer a series of on-the-spot questions designed to help the audience get to know the guest of honor. Watch the 15-minute recording or view the full transcript below.


Full Transcript

Tony D'Astolfo: Hi, and welcome to Zeno Labs Live, the new live video series from travel booking and expense management booking provider, Serko, where we feature subject matter experts on various topics across the corporate travel industry. I'm Tony D'Astolfo, and today I'm joined by Tye Radcliffe, Director of Distribution at United Airlines. Tye, thanks for joining us.

Tye Radcliffe: Thank you for having me, Tony. I'm happy to be here.

Tony D'Astolfo: Great. The topic today is distribution, and in my opinion, we're with the guy who's been knee deep in this for a very long time. To the point where I actually refer to you now as the Elder Statesman of Distribution here in the U.S. Appropriate?

Tye Radcliffe: I appreciate that very much. I have a great deal of respect for my other colleagues in this space. I don't know if I should take offense to elder, but I think I like where you're heading.

Tony D'Astolfo: No, no. They call me that all the time. It's a good thing. It's knowledge, it's wisdom. That's what we've got.

Tye Radcliffe: I like it.

Tony D'Astolfo: We've got about 15 minutes today. We're going to talk distribution, obviously, so let's jump in. First up, generally speaking, how are things going at United, relative to NDC?

Tye Radcliffe: I think we've got a really good news story with NDC, Tony. We did not slow down during the pandemic. We took it as an opportunity to just focus, buckle down and keep pushing forward. We're delivering a lot of exciting capabilities. We're testing right now with ARC MBSP so that we can start to roll that out broadly this year. We're doing things like unused e-ticketing. One of the things I'm really excited about is what we call servicing of direct channel bookings. If a customer starts on united.com, and they have told us who their agency of record is, we can actually allow that travel agency to retrieve the booking, and make changes to it, submit it through ARC or BSB. Super excited about some of the stuff, unused e-tickets, et cetera, honing in on what TMCs need.

Tony D'Astolfo: That has been one of the major gaps, the whole idea of servicing the record. That's something that you say is coming, or is available today?

Tye Radcliffe: Certainly we have change, exchange, refund, void. That type of stuff is out there. We're trying to go to the next level, unused e-tickets. Trying to figure out what it is that the TMCs really need in order to feel comfortable pivoting to NDC. That's what we're trying to deliver. I've been cautious in terms of rolling something out to the market that really isn't fully fit for what the TMCs need. Some people might say, "Well, United's been behind in this space," and I would say really we want to come out strong right from the get go saying, "No, we have a product that you can use out of the gate." That's the goal.

Tony D'Astolfo: No, that's important, because I think some of the others that have been early have had that as a major cap. What happens when there is a disruption in the service? What happens when there's a refund requested, or maybe a downgrade, and there's residual value? There's so many little elements that make this a lot more challenging. My hat's off, because I actually think that's one of the things that has been lacking here, so good that you guys are doing that.

Tye Radcliffe: Thank you, Tony. We're excited about it. In fact, IATA has had an initiative, they call it... we had a name for it, it was more obstacle based, but we turned it into accelerators. NDC Accelerators, where we've had major TMCs, buyers and airlines in the room together with IATA to say, "What are things we can do to increase NDC adoption?" A lot of the other folks, Neil at American, a lot of other players in the NDC space have been there with us, rolling up our sleeves to say, "How can we improve?" We're tackling that. Not only at United, but I hope, as an industry.

Tony D'Astolfo: Where's most of your, let's say, NDC volume coming from today? Is it still mostly on the leisure side, and at your website?

Tye Radcliffe: That's fair, yes. I think it's primarily just because of the pandemic. We have been really focused on the TMC side, in terms of the requirements that we're building, the capabilities that we're making available, but just the nature of business travel has slowed dramatically in all of 2020, or at least since March of last year. Looking forward to seeing that coming back soon, we hope. Yeah, I think it's very fair to say that we've been, most of our NDC traffic has been leisure.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right, let's talk about, you led into it a little bit, I want to talk about two of the other key participants of the business travel ecosystem. I'm talking specifically about the GDSs, and the TMCs.

Tye Radcliffe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Tony D'Astolfo: I don't think that anybody would suggest that they're not hurting, in the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I would say their level of investments have been all over the board. Some have jumped in, but I think there were mostly hesitant, and let's say, sporadic. That's a word I use because I don't know that they were constantly focused on, "What can we do today, tomorrow, the next day, to develop a NDC solution, or participate in NDC?" My question to you is, coming out of the pandemic, or within the pandemic, where do you see those two entities? Let's talk first about the GDS. Are they investing? Do you think post-pandemic they will maintain a level of investment given the industry has been impacted so significantly on the revenue side?

Tye Radcliffe: I think it's fair to say the GDSs have been investing in NDC for a while now. They haven't always been maybe as public about it, but they have been investing, doing the analysis. It's a huge lift for them. My hat's off to them for undertaking it, and doing it. Yeah, they're all investing. They're each at different places with different airlines. You ask me where to rank the big three, it might be a completely different answer than someone else. It just happens to be where you are in their roadmap for implementation. I've seen good things. I certainly would ask all of them to move faster. It's one thing just to be able to do shopping, booking and cancel, exchange. Really what the buyer and TMCs are looking for is that special content that draws them to NDC. I think that's, unfortunately, some of the longest timelines out there, are for some of that interesting content. The dynamic bundled fares that we've introduced, which are the base fare plus a collection of ancillaries that the travel manager has said, "I want my employees, my customers, to see this."

Tye Radcliffe: As we layer that on top, and put that in the search results page, so that it's very clear, "This is a fare, or product, that your travel manager has negotiated on your behalf." One click, easy to buy. A lot of GDSs are struggling to say, "Let's just get the baseline stuff out of the way, and then we'll do the cool stuff." The buyers and TMCs are saying, "No, no. I want the cool stuff now."

Tony D'Astolfo: Yeah.

Tye Radcliffe: It's just a little bit of this, right?

Tony D'Astolfo: A shameless plug, because Serko's been doing a bundle, we're going to try to grab the bundle from you guys, on behalf of one of our new customers. We're really excited about it, because it just enhances the whole experience for the user. You start to see the benefit of the bundle right there in the buying process. We're really excited. The travel managers you talk to, they're excited, too, because now they can finally get to the total cost of the trip.

Tye Radcliffe: Absolutely.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Now let's shift to TMCs. I'm talking specifically business travel. I think some of them have been in a wait and see mode, "Let's see where it comes." There are others that have been very direct about, "We'd like this to be in the GDS." Do you think that's their position, or do you see anybody out there, "We're jumping in, and we're going to do something independent of the GDS, or the content source."

Tye Radcliffe: I see things all over the map. I see folks that are saying, "I am deeply dependent on the technology that the GDS provides to me, therefore I'm going to wait." Then we've partnered with them to go to the GDS to say, "These are the features and functions that we need to accelerate, and bring to market faster." There are others that say, "I want to do both. I'd like to continue in the GDS, but maybe for some of my customers I want some of this content faster." They do try to put a toe in the pool, if you will, on the direct connect side. Others are saying, "I'm fully direct connect, because that's just my business model, and that's what I want to do." I think it's the gambit, and we're here to support whatever the TMC wants, and whatever the travel buyer wants. That's what we want to make available, and make them happy.

Tony D'Astolfo: Let's talk about some of the third parties that are out there. Let's move away from the traditional business travel ecosystem. You got Atriis, you got Duffel, you got TP Connect, you got Accelya. Jim Davidson, our old friend from Fare Logics, is now at Accelya. Do you see any of them breaking out, post-pandemic, to be a leader in this space?

Tye Radcliffe: Full disclosure, Accelya is our IT provider for NDC. United's NDC API is provided by Accelya. A fantastic partner, we love working with them. I feel like they've already broken out as a star in the NDC space. I don't put them in the bucket with Travel Fusion, Atriis, TP Connect, et cetera. Those are the aggregators, new generation aggregators, maybe is a way to call them, and Duffel, et cetera. I think they're all doing really interesting things, I'm excited about the technology they're bringing, and I think it's the rising tide, lifting all the boats. As they innovate, and find new things to do, everybody takes a look and says, "I don't want to miss out on that. I need to be a part of that, and make sure we have those capabilities, too." I don't know there's one in particular. It's a broad field in this horse race, and the odds are scattered. I don't know which one is going to emerge as the winner. I think Wall Street certainly is making some bets on some of those guys, so we'll see. I'm excited for all of the innovation. It can come from anywhere. It can come from the smallest one.

Tony D'Astolfo: No, it's great to see innovation. It's great to see the investment, as you mentioned. It's about time that we're starting to see a significant influx of private equity and outside investment in business travel, because I think they see the upside. It's good that these guys are out there, and we'll see. You're absolutely right. This will be an interesting year, as we move into it, to see if somebody jumps ahead, or who knows, if there are mergers, acquisitions, that will happen here, too. We've seen that before as well. Multiple GDSs turn into one. All right, one business travel question before we move into the Zeno Zone. For business travel, will 2021, or the balance of this year, let's say the second half of the year, be a buyer's or seller's market?

Tye Radcliffe: I'm the distribution guy, not in sales, so this is Tye's opinion.

Tony D'Astolfo: Okay.

Tye Radcliffe: This is not a forward looking statement. Look, I think business travel is coming back, and it's coming back in a big way. I think not only from the pent up demand of, "We've got to get out there and see our customers," but also from the angle of, "I, as a traveling salesperson, or whatever, I want to get on the road, and see people again."

Tony D'Astolfo: Yeah.

Tye Radcliffe: I think you're going to see it come back in a big, big way. It'll be interesting to see how things shift around, but as people get vaccinated, they're ready to hit the road. More people get vaccinated, they come back into the office, so there's a reason to travel. I see 2021 as, I hope the last half of this year, we start to see things get back to normal.

Tony D'Astolfo: I'm with you on that. I'm actually becoming more optimistic, strictly based on the level of vaccinations. I think we're lowering the numbers. I think people are starting to see that it's okay to travel, I think domestically. I think international is going to be a little bit more of a stretch.

Tye Radcliffe: Yeah.

Tony D'Astolfo: I'm hoping that U.S. and North America, we start to get the lines open. All right, thank you for that. Now it's time to move into the Zeno Zone, where we switch it up a little bit. We're going to give a couple of quick hit questions that allow us to get a little bit more familiar with Tye the person.

Tye Radcliffe: All right.

Tony D'Astolfo: You ready to roll here?

Tye Radcliffe: Yeah. Let's do it.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Tye, you have a major business decision to make, and you can make one phone call to anyone. Who gets the call?

Tye Radcliffe: Oh, anyone?

Tony D'Astolfo: Anyone.

Tye Radcliffe: Alive?

Tony D'Astolfo: Alive, dead. Yeah, in this one I'm going to say alive. The next question, you can have dead or alive, but in this one we're going to say alive.

Tye Radcliffe: I'm going to cheat, and give you a two part answer.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right.

Tye Radcliffe: If it's a real business decision that I need to make, I'm calling my friend, Jeff Katz, I worked for him at Orbitz.com.

Tony D'Astolfo: Okay.

Tye Radcliffe: Known him for many, many years. I trust him, he is outstanding, so I'm calling Jeff. If I get to call anybody, I might call Tim Cook, just because I think that would be cool, and let's see what he has to say.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right, well done. Katz is a good one. All right. Now we'll get into dead or alive. Three dinner guests, anybody. This is anybody in the history of time, dead or alive, three dinner guests. Who's at Tye Radcliffe's table?

Tye Radcliffe: I've seen you do this before, Tony, and admire you as a speaker, and a leader, by the way, at Phocuswright for many years, so I anticipated this, and I gave it a lot of thought. I'll tell you, you might laugh. Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Oprah Winfrey. Why Oprah, it's Oprah because I'm going to be so star struck and awed, I need somebody that's going to ask beautiful questions, she's going to do it. I think she's fascinating as well.

Tony D'Astolfo: Let me just say, you're the second one to put Oprah at their table.

Tye Radcliffe: Fantastic.

Tony D'Astolfo: Very interesting for you to say that, and we are going to capture these things. That's a good one, I like that. All right, as an ancillary to that question, are you at a fine dining establishment, or are you in a dive bar? Now look, if you invited Oprah, I said it on the earlier speaker that gave us Oprah, I don't see Oprah in a dive bar, but I'll let you answer the question.

Tye Radcliffe: Me either. I'll go in there, but it's not really my scene. I would say fine-ish dining.

Tony D'Astolfo: Fine-ish dining.

Tye Radcliffe: If we're outside somewhere at a nice café, that's fine, too. Bistro.

Tony D'Astolfo: All right. Sounds good. Sounds good. All right, last question before I let you go. I want you to give me a prediction, something you think is going to happen in our industry in the next 12 months, and remember, this is being recorded for posterity, so we're going to come back, and see how good your prognostication was. Prediction from Tye Radcliffe.

Tye Radcliffe: This is important to me personally, Tony. I think you've seen the announcements that Scott Kirby has made about our serious investment in carbon sequestration, and protecting the environment. That's really important to me. My hope and prediction is that another major player in our industry makes an announcement about following in our footsteps, and doubling down on protecting the environment. I think that's hugely important, and that's what I want to see, someone else coming to the table to say, "Yes, we too, are very, very serious about protecting the environment."

Tony D'Astolfo: Excellent. Well done. All right, well listen, Tye, thanks so much today for joining us. It's been really a pleasure, and it's always great to see you and talk with you. Hopefully we'll get to see each other in person soon. I want to thank everyone else who has joined us live here, and we look forward to seeing you again on our next installment of Zeno Labs Live. Until next time, this is Tony D and Tye Radcliffe, signing off.

Tye Radcliffe: Thank you so much.

Have feedback for our team or ideas for other guests we should host on future episodes of Zeno Labs Live? Drop us a line.

About the Speakers

tye radcliffe2

Tye Radcliffe

Director of Distribution for United Airlines

Tye Radcliffe has been a travel industry leader since 1997 and currently serves as Director of Distribution for United Airlines. Tye is happily married, plays timpani in a Chicago community orchestra, and can be seen riding his Vespa throughout the city.


Tony D'Astolfo

SVP of North America for Serko

Tony joined the Serko team in 2018 to lead the launch into the North American market. Prior to Serko, Tony served in leadership roles at Deem, Phocuswright, and GroundLink. In his free time, you can find Tony in the New York area quoting "The Godfather" to all who will listen.