The card that's also a ticket

That plastic card in your pocket is planning to be more than just your flexible friend. Soon it will be a travel agent, tour guide and air fare negotiator.

The smart card is here - and will soon be flying from an airport near you. It is going to make travel easier, whether you're on business or taking a holiday. American Airlines and IBM already have a pilot scheme in operation in the United States.

The smart card opens the way to no-ticket travel. You select your flights and hotel on the Web, download the details on to your card, and off you go. There's no paper, no waiting for tickets, no hassle about identification. The card introduces you along the way, as you plug it into the slot at an airport, car-hire agency or hotel lobby.

"Welcome, John Smith," says the machine. "As an IBM employee, you are entitled to our business rate and a free upgrade. Your vegetarian meal has been booked, and we have reserved your preferred non-smoking room at the rear of the hotel ..."

Many airlines are already experimenting with electronic ticketing - the first stage in this revolution. In effect, your credit card becomes the ticket, and prompts a machine to issue your boarding card.

After successful trials, British Airways recently introduced e-ticketing on all domestic routes, and others are set to follow suit.

The real breakthrough, however, came when IATA, the world's air traffic authority, recently agreed a common standard for recording and exchanging information on electronic tickets, paving the way for seamless journeys using the interconnecting flights of several airlines. Even more important was the setting of a standard for putting ticketing information on to smart cards.

The smart card's potential will be revealed in a project under way in the US. IBM and American Express employees are travelling with smart cards issued jointly by American Airlines and Amex. Thanks to MFC, an IBM operating system, the card is much more than just a storage device; its chip can also act as an all-in-one loyalty card, charge card, and vehicle for electronic ticketing.

"At the moment, the project is aimed at electronic ticketing, but the potential is enormous," says IBM's David Dingley. "A smart card could be used to buy a ticket, get you to the airport, check in, buy duty-free goods, then become a boarding card. It could be integrated with the immigration process. In principle, you could swipe a card to go through immigration. We recently demonstrated loading a smart card with a ticket over the Net - the technology is there to do it, and you can buy a PC keyboard that incorporates a smart card reader."

Dingley says that forthcoming standards will enable companies to issue employees with "digital certificates" to incorporate into smart cards as proof of their identity and entitlement to discounts. "That's fairly advanced thinking," he says. "But look two or three years down the line, and you start to see how ticketless travel is only the beginning"n

Dorothy Walker