Airlines are pushing further into electronic ticketing, or ticketless travel, which essentially gets rid of paper tickets.
The advantage for passengers is they don't have to worry about losing tickets and they can board the plane faster. For an airline, there's the lure of saving up to $25 million a year by eliminating hundreds of accounting positions that are needed to track tickets.
Atlanta-based ValuJet Airlines (see Corporate Closeup on Page 34) has used only E-ticketing since the regional carrier took off in October 1993. Passengers book tickets directly with the airline or travel agents, pay with a credit card and get a confirmation number. They give that number, or their name, when checking in to receive a reusable boarding pass. A receipt with the itinerary is mailed on request.
"We were clearly the trendsetter," said Katie deNourie, director of communications for ValuJet. "Our goal was to simplify the travel process. From an accounting perspective, once the flight has taken off, that revenue is automatically posted as flown revenues. We have no accounting department that requires 200 to 300 people."
Southwest Airlines rolled out a ticketless travel system in all its 45 cities in January. "Once customers use ticketless, they haven't gone back," said Ed Stewart, manager of public relations.
About 30% of the airline's passengers use the option; Southwest estimates it will save at least $25 million this year from efficiencies.
United Airlines and Continental Airlines are jockeying to be the first major carrier on board nationally with ticketless systems.
United instituted E-ticketing in 20 West Coast Shuttle by United cities last November and added 190 Business One flights from its Chicago hub in March (AA, April 10). On the shuttle, 30% of travelers now use E-ticketing, as do 10% to 15% of Business One passengers.
The airline pushed up the date for national E-ticketing to September (from the end of the year) to be the first national carrier with the service.
Continental plans to be ready with its system by December.
Delta Air Lines began testing ticketless travel in April on its hourly shuttle flights between New York, Washington and Boston.
Airlines and consultants say that little marketing edge is expected to be gained by being first with E-ticketing, since no one will have a significant lead. And the airlines aren't looking to trumpet their new technology as cutting-edge, either.
In fact, only Southwest and United are trumpeting E-ticketing at all. Southwest has been running print ads in Texas, Los Angeles and San Francisco via Cramer-Krasselt, Chicago. United breaks a national print campaign Aug. 28, from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, that will run through November. Local print and radio in six major markets will emphasize "ease of use and ease of mind" rather than innovation, said John Ruhaak, United VP-advertising and promotion.
Self-check-in machines should give another boost to E-ticketing. The machines allow passengers to buy tickets, select seats, pay by credit card (if not already done), and get a receipt and boarding pass. Continental has self-check-in in 12 cities, Delta in three shuttle cities and United in two shuttle cities. USAir has had three machines in Boston since July '94, and more in Baltimore and Washington.
Online computer access will also facilitate E-ticketing by allowing travelers to bypass agents and airlines to buy tickets. United Connections has been on CompuServe for two months and will launch an updated version Aug. 24 that uses the Microsoft Network and Windows 95 software.
For the air traveler who's more comfortable with tradition, all the airlines, except ValuJet, still offer conventional paper tickets. However, aviation consultants estimate that within the next few years, E-ticketing will be the norm.
Many point out that ticketless systems have been used by hotels and car rental companies for years. The airlines have lagged because of concerns about passenger acceptance. One industry observer also noted that ticketless travel "terrifies travel agents because consumers will think that they don't need them anymore."
The American Society of Travel Agents acknowledged a degree of concern. "It's human nature for some people to be leery of change, but we try to impress on our members that this is something coming up and let's work with it," said an ASTA spokesman.
Also, airlines' reservation systems weren't equipped to handle E-ticketing. Smaller carriers with newer, independent systems could adapt more quickly.
"We think because they can get a plane with 400 people into the air, they can do magic," said Randy Peterson, editor of Inside Flyer, Colorado Springs, Colo. "The truth is, the airline industry is not as technically advanced as we think they are. I think most people will like the new system as time goes on-most people have gone through that panic where they thought they lost their ticket."