Ticketless travel takes to the skies

March 10, 1995|By Andrew Leckey

Change course.

Cost-cutting measures by the money-losing airline industry mean changes for 1995:

* If you're one of those people who nervously checks 100 times to make sure he has his ticket while awaiting boarding, help is on the way for your troubled psyche.

Carriers are moving to "ticketless" travel, which does away with a lot of costly paperwork. Several offer electronic ticketing in a variety of forms. Others are testing it, though procedural questions remain.

* If you're a travel agent who thinks it's already hard enough to make a buck in the helter-skelter world of gyrating airfares, your psyche has become more frazzled.

Airlines have capped at $50 the commission paid to travel agents by carriers on tickets of more than $500, vs. the traditional 10 percent commission. Agents filed an antitrust class action lawsuit to protest this change, which is costly to their business.

ValueJet Airlines of Atlanta has been "ticketless" since its inception in 1993 and Southwest Airlines of Dallas has offered the option since Jan. 31 of this year. You make a reservation by telephone and receive a confirmation number. You check in at the gate, where you give your name and the purchase record is pulled up on computer. Passengers get reusable plastic

boarding cards.

United Airlines uses a ticketless system on West Coast shuttle flights and hopes to make it an option on all its domestic flights this summer. Initially handled through the airline, it also becomes available through travel agents in mid-March. You order by phone, and when you arrive at the airport, show your credit card or a picture ID at the counter and receive a boarding pass.

Delta Air Lines, on a limited basis between New York, Washington and Boston, is testing a plastic card with a computer chip that the traveler slides through an AT&T terminal at the gate to automatically bill his credit card. American Airlines has a ticketless test under way with employees traveling on company business that requires showing their ID.

You can still receive a paper itinerary by mail or fax, though it's just a reminder or proof for business purposes and has no monetary value.

"For the ticketless system to spread around the world, we're working up standard procedures," explained Timothy Neale of the Air Transport Association. "For example, there's the problem in some airports that you must have an actual ticket in hand to get beyond security checkpoints."

By law, a traveler must be informed of legal requirements, which traditionally are printed on the ticket. That will have to be done differently, Mr. Neale said. There also must be compatible electronic formats so ticketless information can flow between carriers when a passenger transfers.

"Ticketless air travel is a good thing for all involved and doesn't negatively affect travel agents, because people primarily go to them for help finding the best airfares," said David Love, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA). "Travel agents save some paper costs and the consumer will adapt to not having a ticket in hand."

Mostly, the ticketless system will be just an option. "Paper tickets will always be here, but ticketless travel is an option of particular benefit to the business traveler flying to many cities in a row and changing plans at the last minute," explained United Airlines spokesman Tony Molinaro.

American Airlines believes issues must be resolved. "For example, today you can't handle baggage at curbside without ** presenting your ticket to the skycap, so we're still not yet sure how this could be handled without making the passenger carry bags inside," said Teresa Hanson,spokeswoman for American.

The capping of travel agent commissions, initiated by Delta and followed by others, is more controversial. "This low blow has pushed travel agents into a situation where many possibly won't be able to continue to operate," said ASTA's Love. "Charging fees to the traveler to make up for lost commissions, though we must consider it, is the last thing we want to do."

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