Look Ma, No Plane Ticket

When passengers board United Airlines' domestic planes on Sept. 18, many of them will not be ticket holders. But they won't be gate-crashers, either. They'll be using an optional electronic ticketing system that UAL began offering on its California shuttles last November and is now extending to all its U.S. flights.

So-called E-tickets, stored in computer memory instead of printed on paper, are the latest innovation in air travel. Airlines expect to save millions of dollars by reducing the costs involved in issuing and processing paper tickets. UAL, which is looking into expanding the service to international flights next year, is the first major carrier to make widespread use of ticketless travel. Atlanta-based ValuJet, a small regional airline, pioneered systemwide E-tickets two years ago, and regional Southwest Airlines started offering them on all its flights last January. Continental Airlines, which began offering ticketless travel in April, 1995, has it on 50% of its domestic flights and will expand the service nationwide by yearend. American Airlines and Northwest will introduce E-tickets in a number of test markets in 1996.

UAL, which is enticing customers to try out the system with bonus frequent-flier miles, says electronic ticketing is aimed mainly at frequent fliers on short business trips. The advantage is that travelers can make reservations, buy tickets, get refunds, or change their routes just by using their phone and credit card. There is no paper document to worry about picking up, receiving in the mail, forgetting at home, losing, or having stolen. "Most of the time, our business travelers make last-minute changes to their routes or times of departure," says Mark Koehler, UAL's E-ticket project manager. With E-tickets, you can change your flight up to one hour prior to departure with just one call--though you still have to pay any extra charge for canceling your original ticket.

To reserve E-tickets, customers book their flights by phoning the airline's reservation center or a travel agent and paying with a credit card. If requested, they will receive an itinerary of the journey and a receipt by mail or fax. On the day of departure, passengers identify themselves at the airport ticket counter with a photo I.D., such as a driver's license or passport, or the credit card used to purchase the ticket. Some carriers, such as Southwest and Continental, give passengers a confirmation number as an extra security feature.

CURBSIDE CHECK-IN. Don't expect just to roll out of your car and onto the plane: Most E-ticket passengers still have to line up at ticket counters to check luggage and get a boarding pass. However, airlines are trying to speed up those procedures by allowing curbside check-in for ticketless travelers with photo IDs. Early next year, Continental and United also plan to install automated check-in machines that dispense boarding passes and assign seats; Continental's will even check luggage. Southwest ticketless passengers can go straight to the boarding gate if they have only carry-on bags.

One drawback is that only about 50% of travel agencies have a computer reservation system compatible with electronic ticketing. So there's a good chance your agent can't handle a ticketless booking. In fact, most ticketless travelers call airlines directly. "That works well for passengers traveling on routes with frequent flights and little variation in airfares," says Travis Tanner, chief executive of Minneapolis-based Carlson Wagonlit Travel, the second-largest U.S. agency. "But most people like to shop around for the best price and flight schedule and need a travel agent to find the best deal."

If you are used to making your own arrangements, going online can help. UAL's United Connection on CompuServe allows you to scan flight schedules, shop for low fares, and purchase ticketless travel through your PC. An updated version will be available on the Microsoft Network next year and will be for sale on diskette in November. But E-tickets cannot currently be booked on other consumer online services, such as American Airlines' EaasySabre, and Worldspan Travel Shopper, operated by Delta, TWA, and Northwest.

So far, passengers have responded well. Southwest, for example, says 30% of its customers opt to go ticketless. Who says only millionaires with private planes can travel without a ticket in their pocket?