E-tickets not exactly taking off Flying: Travelers still like that piece of paper.

September 14, 1997|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Electronic ticketing, which has the potential to save airlines considerable money, is off to a slow start.

Until this summer, "ticket-less travel" was available only for trips in the United States and Canada, but now two routes to Frankfurt, Germany, have been enfolded in the system.

Major airlines first offered electronic tickets -- or e-tickets, as they are called -- in 1994, with Southwest Airlines leading the way. Linda Rutherford, a Southwest spokeswoman, says that more than half the line's daily trips are now made using electronic tickets, and this seems to be the best any airline is doing.

US Airways, for example, started out with 10 percent of its sales in electronic tickets a year ago, and is now doing 15 percent to 17 percent, according to David Castelveter, a spokesman.

At American Airlines, Tim Smith, a spokesman, said that 30 percent of frequent fliers use electronic tickets but that over all, the level is closer to 10 percent.

Stephanie Horton, president of Union Tours in New York, a travel agency, said that with the exception of business travelers, few of her clients were willing to do without a paper ticket. "They really want that comfort zone," she said.

This spring, most of the major airlines raised to $70 the fee for replacing a lost ticket, which is irrelevant in the world of electronic tickets. Asked if this was a way of propelling customers to go electronic, some denied it, saying that $70 merely represented the cost of replacement, but others said it possibly was.

How it works

The electronic ticket works like this:

* The passenger reservation is put into the computer, along with data of the credit card to which the ticket is charged. If the time is close enough to the flight, within 30 days in many cases, seats are also selected. The passenger is given a reservation or locater number.

* If there is time, a copy of the itinerary is faxed to the buyer, with information that the Department of Transportation requires, for example, the limits of liability in the event of an accident, refund policies and overbooking rules.

* At the airport, the passenger tells the counter clerk the number, usually using the credit card used in the purchase for identification, as well as the government-required photo identification.

* The clerk provides a boarding pass for the flight.

If the sale was made by a travel agent, the traveler is not expected to produce the matching credit card: that record is the responsibility of the agent.

The airlines say that if the passenger forgets the finder number, the airlines can reconstruct a record using the passenger's name, credit card number and destination.

If the government-required information about the ticket was not faxed to the client, it may be given out at the airport, the Transportation Department says.

Not counting postage to mail a ticket to a traveler, the airline industry estimates that it costs $8 to process a paper ticket and $1 to process an electronic ticket.

The airlines are doing some pushing for the new system, often using the electronic version as the default choice if the passenger does not specify a paper ticket. C.P. Howlett, vice president of America West, said that after a year and a half, 27 percent of the line's tickets -- those sold directly and through agents -- were electronic, but that 90 percent of the reservations made directly with the line were electronic.

A friend calling Continental for tickets between Newark, N.J., and Boston, too late for a mailed ticket to arrive, was offered an electronic ticket. Nervous, he asked about express mail, was quoted $35 for this service and elected the electronic route. A detailed itinerary was faxed to him. The trip went off without a hitch, even when he and his companion got to the airport early for the return and, on request, were put on an earlier flight.

When I called Northwest Airlines early in June for a fall trip, the agent set a friend and me up for electronic tickets without being asked.

I went along, but uneasily; I know that while I will not misplace two costly tickets to Montana between now and September, if we must be shifted to another airline, we will have to compel Northwest to print out tickets because the software to shift passengers between lines is not yet ready. This is a big negative, and it becomes a major problem when an airline is on strike.

While electronic communication, which emerged from the same ether as the electronic ticket, is enjoying such a boom, why are the tickets not popular with travelers?

Travel agents like Horton cite travelers' need to hold a piece of paper. Liberty Travel, which sells close to $1 billion a year in vacation travel, according to Cathy Pelaez, vice president for sales, does "very, very little" electronic ticketing, and waits for the client to ask.

Ira Theodore, co-president of Empress Travel, said that even in the business market, "we haven't got over the hump yet -- people are more secure with paper if there is a problem."

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