Tom Campbell is a self-described paranoid when it comes to business travel. After a few harried days on the road, hopscotching from one city to the next and juggling his briefcase, luggage and laptop, the 37-year-old executive invariably has one thing on his mind. “I find myself constantly saying, Where did I put my ticket?’ ” says Campbell, national sales manager for a New Westminster, B.C., printing company. Last month, those worries disappeared after Campbell discovered electronic ticketing, a new technology that is fast gaining popularity among Canada’s airlines. Now, when Campbell wants to book a flight, he simply phones his airline, pays by credit card and jots down a confirmation number, which he recites at check-in time—eliminating the need to pick up, and keep track of, a paper ticket. “It gives you ease of travel,” he says. “I don’t ever have to worry, ‘Oh, no, where did I put it this time?’ ”
From the airlines’ perspective, ticketless travel promises lower costs and faster passenger check-ins, requiring fewer staff at airport counters. Not surprisingly, it is especially popular with discount carriers. Westjet Airlines Inc. of Calgary, a new service that began operating last month on six routes in Western
Canada, uses e-ticketing—as the technology is sometimes known—on all of its flights. So will Greyhound Air, a discount carrier based in Kelowna, B.C. (It intended to start flying next month, but last week the National Transportation Agency vetoed the plan because U.S.-owned Greyhound does not have a domestic licence.) Meanwhile, Air Canada recently made eticketing an option on flights from 26 cities in Western Canada, with the rest of Canada due to receive the service by the end of the year. Canadian Airlines plans to test ticketless travel this fall.
The world’s largest carrier, United Airlines, already offers nationwide ticketless service in the United States. About 15 per cent of its domestic passengers currently use it. In September, United—which sold Air Canada its ticketless technology— plans to go nationwide with self-service boarding machines, similar to automatic bank tellers, which spit out boarding passes once passengers have typed in their confirmation numbers. The savings are in the “multimillions of dollars,” United spokesman Tony Molinaro says. “A lot of the saving is in handling time. Employees are being more efficient by doing other things.” In fact, airline officials say it now costs between $17 and $25 to issue and handle a single ticket.
Despite the financial benefits, ticketless travel does present some problems for airlines, particularly on international flights with more complex regulations. Carriers normally use the back of tickets to fulfil their obligation under the Warsaw Convention to provide written notice of the airline’s limited liability in the
Although electronic ticketing is new in Canada, most U.S. airlines already offer it as an option on their domestic flights. Richard Eastman, a Newport, Cal if.-based travel consultant and software developer, says that within five years as much as 65 per cent of all airline travel will be ticketless.
event of lost baggage, injury or death. Staff at some ticketless airlines now hand out those statements at airports. But the U.S. department of transportation, which is attempting to draw up rules for ticketless travel, is concerned that last-minute notifications give passengers insufficient time to, for example, pack valuables in carry-on luggage or buy extra insurance.
For now, Air Canada intends to fax or mail its notices to passengers. Travel outside Canada, however, is more complicated. ‘We’re hoping to be virtually ticketless by the end of the decade,” Air Canada spokeswoman Kym Robertson says. “The limitation is that there are international protocols for documentation that need to be resolved.” Adds Mike Muller, senior manager of passenger services for the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association: “Airlines right now have been walking a little bit in the dark, saying, ‘How do we get this information to our customers?’ ” What is clear is that the airline industry is uncomfortable with the prospect of new
regulations. We’re really nervous that governments are going to come up with some rules that will dampen or restrict the advancement of this technology,” says Muller.
But airline executives are not the only ones who have concerns. Although carriers are reluctant to talk about it, one of the attractions of ticketless travel is that it makes it easier for them to sell directly to passengers, bypassing travel agents—who account for about 10 per cent of their sales costs. Air Canada says it is planning to make e-ticketing available to its travel agents as soon as the system is fully in place. But Ash Mukherjee, president of Travel Agents International of Canada, a Toronto-based chain with 55 outlets, is leery. Airlines, Mukheijee says, “look upon travel agents as a necessary evil in the best of times because they have to pay us a commission to issue that ticket. They say we’ll all be partners. As time progresses, and they corner the market, they will change their tune.”
Regardless of anxious agents and regulatory obstacles, ticketless travel seems to be taking off. And some frequent flyers can hardly wait to use it. Albert Bohemier, a businessman from Dartmouth, N.S., whose company specializes in safety training for helicopter crews, says that he frequently misses flights as a result of check-in delays. Often, the problem is the extra time it takes to stand in line while airline employees issue and process a paper ticket. “In this age of computers, it’s foolish, it’s a waste of paper and it’s a waste of people,” says Bohemier, president of Survival Systems Ltd. “Very often, I waste two days of my trip just because I can’t make the right connections.” Service and peace of mind are what matter to travellers—and what customers want, customers usually get.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.