Ticketless travel, the airline industry’s gambit to wean passengers away from paper tickets, earned another convert this week when Alaska Airlines became the latest carrier to announce its entry into the world of electronic ticketing.
With ticketless travel, customers receive a confirmation number over the phone when they purchase the ticket. The airline will mail a written confirmation and itinerary if requested, but no paper ticket is issued. When the passenger checks in for the flight, he or she presents the confirmation number and identification and receives a boarding pass.
Alaska will begin testing ticketless travel between Seattle and Ketchikan, Alaska; Spokane, Wash., or Oakland, as well as on the Oakland-Boise, Ida., link run by its subsidiary Horizon Air.
The airline expects its ticketless option to go systemwide this fall, spokesman Lou Cancelmi said.
In the first phase, only customers purchasing tickets directly through the airline will be able to go ticketless, he said. Eventually, however, the option will be available through travel agents as well.
The airline began offering ticketless travel partly in response to Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, which have aggressively promoted the option. “It was an important consideration if we wanted to be competitive,” Cancelmi said.
Southwest, which began testing the option in four cities a year ago, began offering ticketless travel to all of its 45 markets in January.
“Within seven weeks we had flown our 1 millionth ticketless passenger,” spokeswoman Linda Rutherford said. About 30% of Southwest’s daily customers now use electronic tickets. The response has been so great that Southwest is now experimenting with hand-held computer terminals that allow agents to check in ticketless travelers at the curb.
United has also been among the leaders in going ticketless. Its program, first used on its Shuttle by United flights, is now available on the carrier’s Business One service in and out of Chicago.
“The electronic ticketing option perfectly fits the needs of the frequent business traveler who makes a number of trips each month, often changes flight itineraries and doesn’t want to worry about keeping track of tickets,” said Chris Bowers, vice president and general sales manager for United.
For customers, going electronic saves the hassle of waiting for tickets to be sent, eliminates prepayment fees and eliminates the risk of losing tickets.
Lost or stolen tickets can be a major aggravation for travelers, who have to pay a fee to file a missing-ticket report, ante up payment for a replacement ticket and sometimes wait up to six months for a refund for the lost ticket.
But it’s not just customers who benefit. Ticketless travel offers airlines a way to save money. The cost of processing written tickets, and the cost of the paper, are significant.
“At Southwest, it saves about 40 steps,” Rutherford said. “It results in greater cost savings and greater efficiency.”
“All that data [on written tickets] gets key-punched in after the fact,” Continental Airlines spokesman David Messing said. “It can save tens of millions of dollars.”
Continental is in the midst of a nationwide rollout of its own ticketless program, called E-Ticket. E-tickets are available in 25 markets, including major business hubs such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, Dallas, Detroit, Atlanta, Minneapolis and San Diego, and the airline said it is adding more markets monthly.
E-ticketing is available only through the airline, though the company expects it to be available through agents later this year.
Continental has also installed automated check-in machines in some airports that allow ticketless travelers to issue their own boarding passes, even change their seating assignment, all by swiping their credit card. The machines will also dispense baggage tags so passengers don’t have to wait in line to check their luggage.
People who travel frequently, especially business travelers, are most likely to go ticketless, at least initially, according to airline representatives. They are most accustomed to other ticketless systems, such as those used by hotels and rental car companies.
“More and more people are used to it and like the convenience of the electronic style of life,” Messing said. “When ATMs first came out, people were hesitant to use them; now people don’t think twice.”
Still, there are those who don’t trust a computer to keep tabs on their travel.
“Some people, for the time being, will want a ticket because that’s the way they’ve traveled for the past 25 years,” Messing said.
Electronic tickets are no more difficult to change than traditional airline tickets. However, if the change required switching to another airline, the originating airline would have to produce a written ticket to be carried to the other airline.
Also, airlines won’t mix and match written and electronic tickets on different legs of the same trip.
Airlines expect ticketless travel to be a common option offered by nearly all carriers within the next five to 10 years.
American Airlines, for example, is experimenting with ticketless travel among its employees and expects to begin testing for the public in early 1996. “It is absolutely a trend,” spokesman Al Becker said.
Delta Air Lines is testing electronic ticketing on its hourly Delta Shuttle flights between New York and Washington and between New York and Boston.
For the test, Delta has issued special cards to its high-frequency shuttle customers. The cards, which look like credit cards, contain a computer chip with all the data necessary to create a reservation, give frequent-flier miles and charge the customer’s credit card.
Passengers with cards appear at the gate, put their card into an electronic reader, get a receipt and board the plane. The program has generated interest among large business accounts with many frequent fliers, spokesman Clay McConnell said.
Still, it will take time before most business travelers feel completely comfortable traveling without tickets in their hands.
“We’re not using it a lot yet,” said Diane Maxey, manager for corporate services for American Honda Motor Co. in Torrance. “People just like the comfort of having that ticket.”
But that will have to change in the near future, she said. “Ticketless is absolutely inevitable. It makes good sense.”