Ticketless travel taking flight in airline industry Booking: Airlines, seeking to save time and money, are frequently issuing confirmation numbers rather than paper tickets.

March 28, 1997|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

You've lost them, misplaced them, even had them stolen. But airlines, in an effort to make ticketing hassle-free and save millions as well, increasingly are issuing confirmation numbers instead of paper tickets.

Ticketless travel, which actually began several years ago, is spreading rapidly throughout the airline industry. United Airlines, for instance, now books roughly a third of its passengers through electronic ticketing and Southwest Airlines issues half its tickets that way.

"In an age of electronics, this is a simpler way to deliver the product," says Gary C. Kelly, chief financial officer for Southwest, which in 1994 became the first major airline to offer E-ticketing.

Instead of a traditional ticket jacket with departure and return coupons, passengers receive a printout of their itinerary and a confirmation number. At the airport, they provide that number along with photo identification to receive a boarding pass.

There's no need to pick up tickets, no delivery charges for the airlines, no lost tickets necessitating replacement fees as high as $60 per ticket. In addition, changing flights in advance can be easier and refunds on full-fare tickets simpler, particularly for business travelers.

"We're constantly booking, then having to change or cancel," said John C. Zimmerman, a partner in a Bethesda certified public accounting firm who travels frequently. "You don't have the hassle of physically picking up the ticket or mailing it back. As we move toward a paperless society, you expect more of this."

Passengers can also book electronic tickets at machines operated by some airlines at the airport or through the Internet.

The streamlined process doesn't eliminate waiting in line at the ticket counter to check baggage or board a plane. But with electronic ticketing, you can still get advanced seat assignments, check in at curbside and accrue frequent-flier mileage.

If you lose your confirmation number, but have photo identification, you can still get on the plane. If an airline's computers are down when you arrive, there is a printed manifest at the ticket counter with the name of each scheduled passenger. Likewise, airlines issue those lists to security personnel at airports which allow only ticketed passengers beyond the security checkpoint.

Still, many passengers are reluctant to trade their security blanket for a mere number and electronic ticketing remains optional.

"Ever since people started flying they've always had a paper in their hand," said Lisa Haber, president of Travel Agents International in Cockeysville. "They've always used a reservation number for rental car or a hotel room, but they want a ticket in hand for the airlines."

"The majority of our clients will not do it," she said. "Even our clients in the high-tech business are afraid of them and they deal with computers every day."

Not that ticketless travel is without kinks.

Airlines typically honor each other's tickets when flights are canceled and passengers try to catch another carrier's flight. But passengers can't use an electronic ticket issued by one airline to obtain a ticket on another.

During the American Airlines threatened strike in February, other airlines warned passengers ticketed on American that they would be required to have American issue a paper ticket if they wanted it honored.

"The systems that are in place weren't built to support electronic transactions," said Kelly of Southwest. "For this to become 100 percent, a lot of changes will have to be made jointly by the airlines."

In addition, credit-card companies say they've seen an increase in stolen credit cards being used to purchase airline tickets since electronic ticketing began.

But for airlines, the driving factor behind E-ticketing is huge savings. The typical paper ticket gets handled about 15 times and the cost of issuing one ticket is roughly $8, not including a travel agent's commission.

E-ticketing saves Southwest about $25 million a year, Kelly says.

While electronic ticketing is still optional, airlines are aggressively pushing it with passengers and travel agents. As an incentive to issue more electronic tickets, one computer reservation system used by travel agents recently offered prizes to agents who issue a minimum of 50 electronic tickets a month.

While the practice is growing, it still represents a minority of tickets issued by airlines. "It's a slow shift, but the comfort level is growing" says David Castelveter, spokesman for Arlington, Va.- based US Airways. "There are people who will always say 'I'm more comfortable with a paper ticket.' I know people who still won't use an ATM [automated teller machine]."

But the International Association of Airline Passengers estimates that by 2005, 90 percent of travelers will be using E-ticketing.

Pub Date: 3/28/97

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