Legacy travel tech: it's time to fix the plumbing

The underlying systems that the travel industry is built on date back to the 1970s. And that old plumbing is leaking all over the place. It’s time to get to work on modernisation – but with a task this big, where do we even begin?

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The global distribution system (GDS) was first introduced in the airline industry in the 1960s. It revolutionised how airlines distributed their inventory and how travel agents booked tickets. The GDS allowed for real-time inventory updates and automated bookings – and despite a couple of updates over the decades, the core workings haven’t changed at all since the late 1970s.

But this isn’t a fault of the GDS. In fact, the GDS is just one component out of countless systems.

The web of systems that airlines have accumulated to manage everything (from inventory, to check-in, to departure of the aircraft) has created so much complexity, that changing one part of the plumbing would bring down all the rest.

At this point, the plumbing has been patched, rerouted, dug up and replaced countless times over the decades. And now, we’re left with 50 year-old tech, trying to merge with bleeding edge digital solutions.

Either that, or we’re wasting our time with companies that only innovate on the surface – but are just as indebted to the old tech.

For anyone who has ever experienced an airline system shutdown, you know that the risks to the airline and its knock-on effects must be avoided at all costs. This is why airlines like Lufthansa have made it their mission to reduce the number of systems they employ – and narrow down 20+ into just 11.

But there’s a lot more to be done than just condensing the bill of materials.

The current travel tech ecosystem simply isn’t fit for purpose, and modernising travel technology infrastructure is a global challenge.

The rewards are high, but the road is long. Nobody’s really tried to go there yet.

Legacy travel tech stands as a stark reminder of the past's enduring influence. And it’s not just the GDSs we’re talking about.

The reliance on the PNR and for example, passive segments, to capture non-GDS booked content, means that every new shiny API falls back on that old legacy tech each and every time one of the agents needs to support it.

Outdated, often cumbersome systems are deeply entrenched within the industry. Frontline travel retailers are still using emulated IBM systems running in web browsers, translating code back and forth. In some cases, they are also only cloud enabled, not cloud native. 

These systems are vulnerable and, for lack of a better word, janky as all hell.

But the intrinsic reliance between agency and GDS is at the heart of the problem. The real problem to solve is bringing meaningful change to the traveller experience. And while this reliance persists, the barriers to entry are high.

Too old to change

The reluctance of legacy technology providers to evolve isn’t surprising. It’s a bit like telling Big Oil™ “stop right now, thank you very much”, when there’s still oil (and profit) to be had. But all this resting on laurels, this complacency and profit skimming, has left the travel industry behind; gasping for air in a world dependent on digital operations.

The implications of persisting with legacy tech within the travel sector will weigh heavy, at a time when the industry needs a boost. But nobody stands to suffer more than travellers themselves, who just can’t seem to catch a break.

What do we mean by legacy tech? 

We mean old systems developed decades ago, when computer screens were giant CRT monitors that only displayed green and black, dragged into the modern age to run in emulators, shoehorned into data centres and running virtually. 

Sometimes, they’re still running on tape.

Systems that, for one reason or another, have never been upgraded.

Sometimes, legacy tech works just well enough to keep alive without changing. Other times, it’s still going because of old gatekeepers, refusing to let go of their little cash cow. And sometimes, there’s simply no alternative; migrating to another platform could have disastrous consequences if there was any downtime at all.

The GDSs are kind of a mix of all three. They have been, and still are, the backbone of the industry. Both leisure and corporate travel agencies have built their service offerings with their tech ingrained. 

Other players have cemented themselves into agency flows, plugging any number of gaps (think mid-office, back-office, OBTs, reporting and so on). All this has resulted in high complexity solutions, which are costly, disjointed, slow to implement and sub-optimal.

And this is what’s holding the industry back.

How is it holding back the industry and impacting travellers?

In a poll by Travel Technology Europe, legacy systems were found to be the biggest barrier to digital transformation within the travel industry. It’s becoming detrimental to productivity – but there’s still an underlying fear of change in the industry.

It’s better the devil you know.

Legacy technology's influence extends beyond inconvenience; it embodies the outdated structures and complacency that grip the travel sector.

Old fashioned interfaces are incompatible with the design and feature expectations that modern users (travellers, retailers, agents, managers – and everyone else) have come to expect from a contemporary booking and management experience.

These systems, which may well have served as the backbone of the industry for decades, now act as barriers to progress.

We can’t provide the experiences we want to. Travellers have a harder time booking the trips they want. This is hugely evident in multimodal travel, especially – where multiple bookings have to be made across legacy systems, simply because they cannot cross-communicate (even with APIs, there’s just too much to connect together).

This was the problem we set out to solve with Junction – and our mission hasn’t changed.

It affects everything

The impact of legacy travel technology is not confined to a single facet of the industry. While GDSs are often the most recognisable (and easy to pick on) legacy platforms, the issue extends beyond them. There are a multitude of outdated operational processes scattered throughout various segments of the travel sector – from booking platforms to inventory management systems, to hotel servicing, to in-flight and crew management systems…

The whole thing is one big disjointed mess.

These technological relics not only limit the capabilities of service providers, but also compromise the quality of travel experiences for consumers.

We have actually turned down multiple commercial opportunities that have asked us to take our modern API-based products and have them react with archaic PNR-based data parsing systems.

It’s a matter of principle. And if we don’t stand on our principles, then how can we deliver the experiences that consumers deserve?

The answer, as we see it, is true unification of the entire travel ecosystem; enabling every system to communicate, to give travellers (and providers) the richest experience possible.

There is another way to do this

The digital age has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. As consumers, we expect efficiency, enhanced customer engagement and improved operational agility. We want an Amazon-like level of choice for everything. Even when we can’t seem to decide on what we want.

The point is, people have expectations now. And those expectations do not include limited choices, clunky interfaces, or having to cancel and rebook an entire trip to change one tiny detail (or cover for a part cancellation).

To break the reliance and move to new modern ways of doing things, new entrants have a lot of complex ground to cover. But with each tech provider's sprint we become ever closer to having service offerings that don’t rely on the GDS or its PNRs and associated passive segments.

We find ways to join content providers inventory together, not just from a bookings perspective but with full servicing. And we find ways to bring a slick UX to agencies and travellers. We make services available to each other, using open APIs.

We don’t build walls between components – we break them down, one by one.

Cloud-based platforms and interconnected booking systems offer a path forward for the travel industry, and our Junction API is bridging these gaps. More and more travel businesses are adopting our platform (we’re at over 3,000 at the time of writing), unshackling themselves from the constraints of legacy technology.

We’re ready for a new golden era in travel. But it’ll take work.

Lots of work.

Playing catch-up

The travel industry is still catching up to the beginning of the 21st century”. So says Adam Harris, the CEO of Cloudbeds.

In his mind, it’s not so much legacy tech that's the problem as it is legacy people

As the rest of the world hurtles forward into the 21st century's technological marvels, the travel industry appears to be in a perpetual state of catch-up. And the reason is a fear of change. Leaders don’t want to risk adopting an untested, unknown platform.

So how does it change?

Well, for every CEO, CTO and COO afraid of change, there are others who embrace it. And they’re coming up faster than you’d think.

The change is inevitable, but the travel businesses that make it sooner have the best chance of surviving long into the digital-only age. And it’s coming, people. In fact – it’s already here. Travel customers are driving it, by using the tech that suits them. And guess what? It’s all digital.

The time has come for the travel industry to confront its legacy tech problem.

Those who don’t will forever be playing catch-up.

And those who do will rule the world (or at least the way we travel around it).

The future of travel starts here

Junction is our answer to the call for a unified, modernised travel ecosystem. To find out more about Junction, talk to our team.

Media contact

Andrew Harreiter

Head of Marketing


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