BA to the fore as ticketless air travel takes off

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The Independent Online
British Airways is on course to abolish paper tickets on its domestic flights by next spring. In line with moves by international airlines worldwide, BA believes the era of "ticketless" air travel is about to take off.

On BA's Gatwick-to-Aberdeen route, ticketless trials have been in progress since August. Passengers with hand baggage only simply reserve their seat by telephone using their credit card. At the airport they check in at a special desk by swiping their card, and choose their seat by touch- screen technology. The only paper they handle is their boarding card.

Passengers with luggage go through the same procedure, but check in their bags normally and also receive a boarding card.

BA said yesterday that the system had so far proved swifter and simpler than the old-fashioned ticket system. If an extension of the trial to some travel agents proves successful, they "hope to have a ticketless domestic service by next spring".

British Airways currently deals with 5.8 million passengers annually on its United Kingdom internal routes. With the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) claiming that processing paper tickets costs around pounds 5 per ticket against only pounds 1 for an electronic ticket, the potential savings - which could be passed on to passengers - are substantial.

Ditching paper and replacing it with electronic technology is now being tested by the world's leading airlines. Passport and immigration checks at airports are also likely to be speeded up by electronic checks as airlines and airport authorities introduce "smart-card" technology.

According to the IATA, paper ticketing will soon be a thing of the past, with "intelligent" ticketing likely to be the norm by 2005. IATA is currently looking at how it can introduce and enforce international standards for the latter.

In the United States, United Airlines has so far introduced electronic ticketing on 40 per cent of its domestic services, using similar procedures to BA.

IBM, the computer giant whose early business included manufacturing machines that processed immigrants at US ports, has gone back to its roots with newly developed "smartcard" technology that is being tested at Bermuda's international airport. The "fastgate" immigration card is designed to put an end to long passport queues for arrivals from international flights.

Essentially involving an electronic passport, passengers apply to encode their passport details and the unique pattern of their own handprint, on a form of frequent flyer card, similar to a credit card.

At the airport, passengers simply swipe the card through the digital passport desk, place their hand on an identification screen, and are informed whether they pass or not. IBM is confident that the system can be in worldwide use within five years. Bermuda airport, which handles half a million passengers each year, will test the new technology next year.

If successful, the Bermuda test will need to be expanded, with the "fastgate" process being tested out at one of the larger international airports. It is understood that IBM has already held initial discussions with the airport authorities at London Heathrow and at Frankfurt airport in Germany.

The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland has upheld complaints by the International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations and the Irish Airline Pilots' Association against an airline for making a joke out of last August's Sudan Airways' hijacking at Stansted airport in Essex. A Ryanair advertisement showed a photograph of the hijacked jet and said: "It's amazing what lengths people will go to fly cheaper than Ryanair." Ryanair has apologised and said the "light-hearted" advertisement would not be repeated.