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Southwest Airlines may become the first major carrier to move to a "ticketless" reservation setup after splitting with three of the four computerized ticketing systems in a dispute over fees.

Going ticketless is one of several high tech solutions Southwest is considering for a new distribution method that could be implemented as early as this summer.

"It's in our best interest to think about changing distribution of tickets in this whole industry," said Ed Stewart, Southwest public relations manager. "We're doing it as always with cost savings in mind. Whatever we do would have to be consumer friendly, and marketing would reinforce that message."

Southwest earlier this month balked at paying booking fees to three computerized reservation systems, owned at least in part by rival carriers (AA, May 9). Those three systems together account for about 25% of total bookings.

Although bookings apparently haven't suffered so far, Southwest still intends to pioneer a new distribution method. The challenge will be to educate consumers and make travel agents receptive to a new process. Already, some travel agents whose ticket systems no longer display or ticket Southwest fares are suggesting other carriers because of the extra time involved for manual ticket writing.

A ticketless system would offer tremendous cost advantages but might be difficult to implement for a carrier the size of Southwest. Consumers would get a confirmation number and check in at the gate.

Morris Air, acquired by Southwest last year, used a ticketless system with great success, Mr. Stewart said.

Now, ValuJet Airlines, a new, low-fare carrier in Atlanta (see related story below), is the only "ticketless" carrier.

"It's clearly possible to do it technically-the real question is whether people are ready for it," said John Pincavage, partner at the Transportation Group, a New York investment company. "Personally, I like to have something in my hand, but as long as there's a confirmation number, I'd feel OK. If one were to postulate where the industry is going in the next five to 10 years, odds are it may go ticketless."

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