BA plans high-tech revolution

British Airways, which last week announced record profits amid rumours of a link-up with American Airlines, is planning to turn itself into one of the most "wired" companies in Britain.

The airline, whose high-tech abilities got it into trouble during its "dirty tricks" campaign against Virgin, is spending more than pounds 200m on an "office of the future" at Heathrow and further millions on computer systems designed to streamline both its handling of passengers and its internal business operations.

From July, flights to Miami and New York will be offering self-service, ticketless check-in for passengers carrying only hand luggage. Travellers will insert their credit cards or BA cards into a machine. "Checking in will take seconds," said Terry Butfield, BA's director of information management.

BA Executive Club members may one day be able to arrange flights via an electronic organiser, without calling a travel agent. The airline is testing a system called Flight Pad, using Apple's pocket Newton message pad, linked to a mobile phone. The passenger selects the destination and departure details and sends it to the airline's central reservation computer, paying on account. Later this year, travellers will be able to book flights via BA's World Wide Web site on the Internet.

BA is introducing a new means of maximising revenue from each flight. Known as Origin and Destination Control, it works out the most lucrative permutation of passengers on routes with stop-overs. The computer will deny you a seat on a flight if it thinks it can make more money by giving it to someone boarding at a subsequent stop. "It will allow us to squeeze pounds 20m extra a year from certain routes," said Graeme Davison, head of the O&D project.

From next month, passengers taking flights from London to Los Angeles and Hong Kong/ Taipei will be able to test BA's new in-flight entertainment and information system, which cost pounds 80m to develop. Operating from a screen in the back of the seat, this offers services such as satellite phone and fax, audio and TV channels, shopping and electronic games. Virgin already has a similar facility, but with fewer options.

"We may add an Internet connection in the future," said Don Stevenson, the BA technology guru responsible for installing the system, "It might become possible for people on the ground to phone an aircraft."

BA's 55,000 employees, rather than its passengers, will most feel the effects of the airline's high-tech drive. From 1998, 2,500 Heathrow staff will adapt to life in the so-called Combined Business Centre. It is a veritable gadget city, almost "paperless". BA claims it will bring cost savings of over pounds 15m a year. As well as scanners to handle documents, e-mail and voice-mail and on-line diaries, everyone's PC will have its own video-conferencing link.

The airline uses another network, CrewLink, to keep in touch with flight crew - its "absentee workforce". It is accessible from computer terminals in BA offices around the world. Those with an account with the online service CompuServe will be able to access CrewLink wherever they are via a laptop and modem.

Given its own past record of hacking into Virgin's computer records, is BA not concerned that it could itself become vulnerable? "There are always some risks," admitted one of the team responsible for BA's Internet activities, "but we don't think it will be a major problem."