Column: E-Ticket exasperation

Thinking of flying on an electronic ticket? Better check the weather first. Then double-check your itinerary. Heaven forbid you make any changes or encounter any delays. Your ticket won't compute.

Despite the fact that some airlines have been crowing about their ambitious IT plans to improve customer service, somebody obviously overlooked e-tickets. The airlines all use different e-ticketing systems, so trying to switch a ticket from one carrier to another -- a piece of cake with old-fashioned paper -- is an express trip to Travel Hell.

During a recent business trip to Atlanta that coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Floyd, I was forced to switch back and forth from Delta to USAir in a frustrating three-day attempt to get home to Boston. The airlines tossed my e-ticket back and forth like a hot potato. One ticket agent gingerly looked over my e-ticket slip before demanding "the rest" of my ticket -- and accused me of paying only for one-way.

At one point, I had to break down and buy a paper ticket just to get between two stopovers. At another, two levels of supervisors were studying a printout from the main reservation system, looking so befuddled I finally asked whether they were familiar with their company's product. As my hopes of any sort of reasonable customer service dwindled, the line of irate travellers waiting behind me grew.

So this is the promise of the Web? This is how airlines like Delta plan to use technology to "push real-time, integrated flight and passenger information to airline workers"?

It's inexcusable that the airline industry has failed to set a single international standard for electronic ticketing. Just such a proposal in August from IBM and an industry trade group elicited a mostly cool response. That's disgraceful. Ticket information is ticket information, and the experience should be the same for customers whether the ticket is paper or electronic.

There's a real opportunity for airline IT executives to take the lead in lobbying for -- and building -- the systems that will enable exchange of this information. Without it, we're facing another thoughtless rush to the Web that falls flat over customer service.

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