Trial Balloon : Humankind Is Poised for a Breakthrough: Getting Off the Ground Without Tickets


If you plan to stay at a Westin hotel or rent a Hertz car, you call for a reservation and, upon arriving at the front desk or counter, produce your ID and credit card to get your room or vehicle. No ticket required.

So why can't the airlines operate that way?

A few are doing so--and the rest are giving it serious thought. Ticketless air travel is coming. Though it's unlikely to spread through the industry like wildfire, it probably will be a routine option for travelers within two years, aviation experts say.

"Ticketless travel is here to stay, and its development is progressing faster than a lot of people realize," said Ralph L. Bernstein, marketing director for Air Travel Card, a corporate charge card used by airline travelers.

Some carriers, such as industry maverick Southwest Airlines and upstart ValuJet Airlines, already offer ticketless service. Customers who make reservations get only a number or itinerary that they present at the ticket counter for a boarding pass.

The trend will take a big leap this summer, when United Airlines, the nation's largest carrier, will offer ticketless travel as an option throughout its domestic system. United has been testing ticket-free service on its shuttle in California.

"It's a convenience, because you don't have to worry about losing your ticket," said George Hall, a photographer, as he waited at the Burbank airport last week to board a United shuttle to his hometown of San Francisco.

Other airlines, including Delta Air Lines and the German carrier Lufthansa, are experimenting with "smart cards" embedded with microchips that enable passengers to book flights, pick seats and pay fares via special machines, similar to automated teller machines, placed in airport terminals.

Indeed, the advent of ticketless air travel is often compared to the arrival of cash machines in the early 1980s. Like the banks, the airlines hope to shave their labor expenses--along with costs incurred from printing and distributing tickets, typically with several carbon copies.

"Ticketless travel is a win-win," United Chairman Gerald Greenwald told a transportation conference last month, "a convenience to our customer and a real cost savings to us."

But not everybody is so excited.

If ticketless booking spreads, it could be another headache for travel agencies, because the new system is seen as prodding passengers to call the airlines directly. The agents, who write 70% to 80% of airline tickets, are already reeling from the carriers' recent decision to limit the commissions they pay agencies for booking domestic flights.

But not all agents fear the ticketless trend.

"As long as travel agents can demonstrate their ability to be a counselor that's able to provide the options with one call, we'll have a value," said Jim Roberts, president of Uniglobe Regency Travel in Ontario. "Besides, I look at ticketless as an opportunity for me to cut my delivery costs of getting a ticket out to the customer."

Regardless, widespread ticketless travel won't happen overnight. Analysts say it involves much more than plugging in a computer and giving out reservation numbers by telephone; it also involves tampering with the psychology of the airline traveler--a tricky matter for any carrier.

An airplane trip is an anxious experience for many people, and within this nerve-rattling environment, travelers are used to having tickets in their hands. If changing that custom causes even the slightest confusion, inconvenience or heightened anxiety for those passengers, it could cost the airlines dearly.

That's why several of the carriers, including industry leaders such as American and Delta, are taking a slow approach to ticketless service. It's also why the new system, at least for now, will be an option, not a requirement.

"For business people that do a lot of shuttling, (ticketless) would be easier for them," said Anna Bennett, a Springfield, Ore., resident who also was flying United's shuttle from Burbank last week.

Bennett had a ticket, though, and she needed to consult it when her original flight was canceled, forcing her to switch to a later flight. After making the change, she said, "If you have an option, I think people like me would say, 'I want a ticket.' "

How many passengers overall are expected to choose the ticketless option? "That's the million-dollar question," said United spokesman Tony Molinaro.

Cary Baker probably won't be one of them. Although he flies about 150,000 miles a year--and has used ticketless service on occasion--"I like to have the documentation" a ticket provides, he says. "It's a point of reference."

There also are technological hurdles. Passengers who change airlines during a trip--interlining, in industry lingo--will need a ticketless system that ensures that airlines' computers are "talking" to each other and that both airlines get paid.

That means the major airline computer reservation systems, such as Sabre and Apollo, must be in sync with the new ticketless system as well.

"Also keep in mind that travel agencies today report all their ticketing transactions through the Airline Reporting Corp., a central clearinghouse for settlement of all the ticketing, costs and fees, and all that needs coordination," said Mark Meader, Sabre's product marketing manager.

The result: "All that infrastructure needs to be built before we can do this en masse," said Kiel Barnekov, business technology administrator for Delta's customer service group. "Interlining will be a big issue."

The airlines' trade group, the Air Transport Assn., is trying to develop computer standards that would resolve the dilemma. "But whether carriers want to go to it (ticketless) or not is their own business decision," ATA spokesman Chris Chiames said.


In any event, some experts say the interlining problem won't be a big hurdle.

"Today, well over 95% of all travelers travel on the same airline" during a single trip, said Michael Boyd, president of Aviation Systems Research Corp. in Golden, Colo. "So you don't need all that interchangeability any more"--the paper record that tickets--with their multiple carbon copies--were originally intended to provide.

In time, analysts see ticketless travel becoming as routine for Americans as ATMs.

In a recent poll of 200 corporate travel managers, Air Travel Card found that more than a third of the respondents expected to see widespread ticketless travel within two years; more than half said ticketless travel would be routine within five years.

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