Just the ticket?

The replacement of paper documents by electronic ticketing should mean good news for air travellers. But Simon Calder has reservations
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The Independent Travel
Air travellers who are waiting for a great leap forwards in domestic aviation could find themselves ... just waiting. Today an advance for Britain's flyers takes place, but some travellers may feel it has been cancelled out by a couple of strides backwards.

Here's why: from this morning, you can no longer breeze up to the gate 10 minutes before the departure of a Super Shuttle from Heathrow to Belfast, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Manchester, and guarantee that you will get a place on board.

Up until yesterday, BA guaranteed to anyone prepared to pay full fare that you would get on the flight of your choice. To back up its promise, the airline kept a plane and crew on standby just in case. But as from today, British Airways is removing the back-up plane that has underpinned the Shuttle operation for the last 22 years.

BA says that the "turn up and take off" system has outlived its usefulness; so far this year back-up planes have been triggered on only six occasions, from a total of 5,000 departures. "Our research shows that 80 per cent of domestic customers prefer the certainty of being confirmed on a flight," says a spokeswoman. The airline says it is using larger aircraft for busy services, and has many more flights than its closest rival, British Midland.

From today, you must have a confirmed reservation on a specific flight to be sure of getting on board. But you will not necessarily be expected to show a ticket. Today, British Airways is extending electronic ticketing to its Super Shuttle routes and other domestic services, following a trial on the Aberdeen-Gatwick route.

The idea of "e-ticketing", widely used within the United States, is to dispense with paper documentation. You make a reservation either by telephone or through a travel agent. If, like many frequent travellers (and Air Miles collectors), you belong to the BA Executive Club, then life is easy. Travellers with only hand-luggage feed the card into a machine at check- in. The computer asks a series of electronic questions and helps you select your seat. The same goes for people who book direct with BA using a credit card - you just stick in the card you used to pay for the journey.

The system becomes a tad unwieldy for those who go through a travel agent. You should be given a plastic card, whose sole purpose is to identify you as the person booked on the flight. "So," you may think, "I could just as well have a ticket." And if you want one, says BA, then you can.

The new system is more complex than the one used successfully by easyJet since its inception in 1995. The Luton-based airline issues no tickets at all. Nor does it assign seats, or get involved with complications such as frequent-flyer schemes. Everyone books direct by phone, and pays with a credit card. You are simply given a code number to quote when you turn up. All you have to do is to reach the check-in desk 20 minutes before departure.

British Airways still offers a speedier check-in than the newcomer - but the difference is not as marked as it was yesterday. Despite gratitude from a generation of tardy travellers, the 10-minute check-in rule has been unceremoniously abolished at Heathrow. Even unencumbered by hold luggage, you now have to be at the gate at least a quarter of an hour before departure to get that flight.

British Midland is watching domestic developments with interest. The East Midlands-based airline has been testing self-service machines at its home base over the past fortnight, and is rolling them out to other domestic airports over the next few weeks. These still involve printed tickets, but the hardware has the potential for modification to paperless travel.

This morning, though, frequent travellers may bemoan the march of progress. Not only has the check-in time lengthened; the journey takes longer, too. Some will look wistfully back to the days before the BA Shuttle was privatised, when the timetable allowed you to get from the check-in desk at Heathrow Terminal One to Edinburgh in 80 minutes flat. Twenty years on, you need to allow at least an hour and a half