Northwest and Continental debut 'Interline' e-tickets

In what analysts expect to be the first of many similar agreements for the coming year, Northwest Airlines Inc. and Continental Airlines Inc. this week began selling integrated electronic tickets in conjunction with computerized reservations system operator Worldspan LP.

Previously, an electronic ticket sold by one of the airlines couldn't be recognized by the other's booking and check-in systems. But Atlanta-based Worldspan built a network that will allow U.S. and Canadian travel agents to input Northwest-validated electronic tickets for trips that include legs on Continental flights.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said demand by travelers interested in taking advantage of the convenience of online tickets will eventually force more airlines into this kind of seamless information-sharing setup.

"The industry as a whole will have to embrace this," he said. "It will just take time."

How It Works

Such setups are called interline systems: They enable different airlines to share passenger information. But most air carriers still lack the ability to electronically transfer data back and forth, which has made it difficult for travelers using electronic tickets to make last-minute flight changes or to book trips that involve multiple airlines.

Setting up the system involved linking the two airlines' legacy systems with a transaction processing facility mainframe at each airline. Much like it does with its own reservations network, Worldspan created direct connections between the two reservations systems using a set of EDiFACT protocols.

Last year, IBM Corp. and the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association developed an interline system that's supposed to let multiple airlines share a single network instead of building individual connections, but no airlines have joined the network. The Open Travel Alliance, another trade association that's developing Internet-based communications standards, is working on a separate set of XML-based interline capabilities.

But airlines have yet to invest much money in industry-wide solutions, leaving such systems in limbo.

St. Paul, Minn.-based Northwest and Houston-based Continental, the fourth- and fifth-largest airlines in the U.S., respectively, are the first two major U.S. airlines to announce an interline connection. Last year, United Air Lines Inc. established an electronic ticketing link with Air Canada.

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