Potential Strike Highlights E-Ticket Weakness

FRAMINGHAM (03/30/2000) - The near strike by US Airways Group Inc. flight attendants exposed an Achilles heel to the airline industry's growing electronic ticket business. Had US Airways been forced to cancel flights, those holding paper tickets could have walked over to rival carriers and made alternate plans, while most e-ticket customers would have found themselves literally empty-handed.

The lesson wasn't lost on the airline.

"Any inconvenience to a customer is too much inconvenience," said US Air spokesman David Castleveter. "Clearly, that is a focus for us."

Last August, the National Business Travel Association, based in Alexandria, Virginia, conducted a study of Fortune 1,000 companies that uncovered skittishness about booking flights electronically. The leading two reasons cited that businesses didn't use e-tickets more often were that "travelers are uncomfortable without paper tickets" and "difficulties in changing from originally booked airline in case of cancellation of flight."

The survey revealed that 90 percent of the more than 300 respondents would use e-tickets more often if the airlines could work the bugs out of the process.

"There's no reason why an e-ticket should be substandard to a paper ticket in quality and convenience," said Lorraine Sileo, an analyst at PhoCusWright, a Sherman, Connecticut-based company that conducts researches and develops strategies for online travel companies.

Had the US Airways flight attendants gone on strike, another carrier -- which Castleveter declined to name -- would have honored US Airway's e-tickets, he said. However, the airline still urged customers to convert electronic bookings to paper tickets as a precaution.

Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition based in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania, said the US Airways predicament highlighted the reasons why gaps in online ticketing need to be resolved, but he added the airlines already understand the importance.

"This is where they want to be and where they're moving to," he said. "The e-ticket market is not going to disappear."

Castleveter said US Airways currently books a large number of its flights electronically at a huge savings for the company, and it's a growing part of the airline's business.

"I can't give specifics, but you're not mailing a ticket, and you're not paying postage on those tickets," he said. "We move 150,000 to 160,000 passengers a day."

The savings is also seen in the travel management business, according to Mitchell.

"I've seen figures of US$8 a ticket," he said. "It adds up."

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