Electronic ticketing - or ticketless travel - continues to grow in popularity in the US, where the concept was invented, and should become widespread in the international arena in the near future, carrier officials say.

First adopted by ValuJet and Morris Air, electronic ticketing was next embraced by Southwest - which bought Morris - and United. Both were offering it on all US routes by mid-1995, and other majors subsequently phased it in. Today they all offer it through their reservations departments; most also offer it through travel agents, and many via Internet Web sites.

In most cases, the majors sell electronic tickets on their domestic US route system. Exceptions include Alaska Airlines, which offers ticketless travel on all services, including flights to Canada, Mexico and Russia; American, which offers it on flights to the Virgin Islands and Germany; Delta, which also offers it to the Virgin Islands; and Northwest and TWA, which both offer electronic ticketing to Canada.

When travellers making use of electronic ticketing book their travel, the airline usually gives them the option to receive written confirmation of their itinerary. When they check in at the airport, they must present identification and show their itinerary; they then receive their boarding pass and check in any luggage.

To speed up airport processes, several airlines --including Alaska, Continental and Northwest - use self-service kiosks to check passengers in, give them their boarding passes and print out baggage tags. Southwest and United also use hand-held computers to check in electronically ticketed passengers.

Carriers report that adoption by US travellers of electronic ticketing is growing continuously. Southwest has the highest percentage of usage; fully half of its passengers travel with electronic tickets today. United says 39 per cent of its ticket sales that are eligible for electronic ticketing are issued this way, while Delta says that 71 per cent of travellers who were offered electronic tickets in June purchased them. Over one-quarter of Northwest's North American tickets are electronic, as are one-fifth of US Airways' domestic tickets.

When electronic ticketing was first implemented, there was much discussion of the potential cost-savings it could effect; the logic was that airlines would reduce their distribution and ticket processing costs, and that travel agents would also cut down on their ticket processing expenses.

Few carriers seem able or willing to quantify how much they have saved by adopting this mode of ticketing: Southwest said it made a $25 million cost saving in the first year it offered it, while America West claims it has saved $12 million since it went electronic in January 1996.

However, most carrier officials concur with Northwest vice president of distribution planning Al Lenza, who says that airlines will not benefit from the efficiencies of electronic ticketing 'until there is enough critical mass. Then it should cut internal processing costs by 50 per cent.'

A number of factors are holding up wider adoption of electronic ticketing. Some passengers are still loath to give up paper tickets, though most airlines are finding - to their surprise and pleasure - that leisure travellers, and even older people, embrace the system as readily as business users. Carriers say that some travel agents have been reluctant to promote electronic tickets, in part because not every computer reservations system can process every airline's electronic tickets; the CRSs and carriers currently are working to remedy this.

Then there are the problems of interlining and issuing tickets for foreign travel, all of which are being studied by the airlines and committees of the Air Transport Association and International Air Transport Association. American, for example, is discussing interlining of electronic tickets with United, its partner Canadian Airlines, and its proposed ally British Airways. United is working on these issues with other carriers, including its four partners in the Star Alliance, with which it will start interlining electronically from next year.

Frank DiNuzzo, American's managing director of marketing performance, says his carrier expects to offer electronic ticketing to Mexico by the end of this year, and to Canada, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere in Europe by the first quarter of 1998. Continental plans to offer electronic ticketing to Latin America next year and to Europe in 1999, while Northwest aims to offer it to Europe later this year.

Not surprisingly, US airlines are ahead of most of the industry in implementing electronic ticketing. Exceptions include Lufthansa, which offers ticketless travel on domestic routes and flights to Paris/Charles de Gaulle and London/Heathrow; it finds that between one-quarter and one-fifth of its domestic passengers have adopted it. British Airways has been offering electronic ticketing on domestic flights since March, and says a fifth of passengers use it.

Besides the still-unresolved problems of interlining and global acceptance of electronic tickets by airlines, government officials, local bank settlement plans and travellers, the system has created other challenges. When American Airlines had its short-lived strike earlier this year, travellers holding electronic tickets issued by the airline were warned that they would have to convert them to paper tickets before they would be accepted by other carriers; this situation should not arise once electronic interlining issues are resolved. Travellers occasionally arrive at airports to find no record of their electronically ticketed booking; carriers are developing safeguards in their systems to prevent this.

Such problems are minor, however, and are not expected to deter the growth of electronic ticketing within and beyond the US. In fact, some carrier officials predict that one day soon, when electronic tickets are more widely embraced, travellers might well be charged a fee if they want to fly with a paper ticket.

Jane Levere

Source: Airline Business