Air Transport World

Airlines in cyberspace: the Internet and the World Wide Web provide new, broad electronic channels for carriers to sell tickets and reduce distribution costs.(includes related articles)

Before the new year dawns, if all goes according to plan, tickets will begin flowing to travel chronically through a new distribution channel known as the World Wide Web (see boxes.)

First into this brave new world of ticketing via the Internet should be Southwest Airlines, undisputed winner of the "best airline Web home page" title. It will be followed in short order by American and in 1996 by Unged. Lf the three pioneers are successful at selling tickets in cyberspace and lowering their distribution costs in the process, others will flock quickly to join them. "I think it's safe to say that within a year, most major airlines will have a fully functional electronic booking system," says Mark Weinberger, manager-marketing communications, U.S. and Latin America for Cathay Pacific. Selling tickets to individual and business users of personal computers is not new, of course. WorldSpan, formerly PARS, and Official Airlinc Guides went on line with CompuServe in the early 1980s. Eaasy Sabre joined them in 1985, is available through nearly a dozen on-line services and in 1994, was accessed some 12 million times and chalked up "more than 1 million" bookings. United Connection was introduced on CompuServe earlier this year and will be a major player on the new Microsoft Network.

What is new is the consumer love affair with the Internet and World Wide Web. For airlines and other businesses, "it's a new way to put your product into a global market instantaneously and it's quite cheap," says Addison Schonland of CIC Research, which has been surveying Web users since May in an effort "to find out who they are," and has concluded that they represent a "massive" travel market.

Unfortunately, in their rush to create an Internet presence in the past few months, many airlines have allowed random employees, service providers and even, in the case of Lufthansa, a student at a university in Germany to place paltry and poorly maintained home pages onto the Web. Internet sites "seem to escape all the normal corporate review and control processes," says David Rowell, Webmaster of the site maintained by Qantas and wholesaler Abel Tasman Tours. "You've got computer and marketing types running amok and sometimes, the result is regrettable."

And Rowell cautions: While the Internet "is the wave of the future . . . and a very efficient distribution means, the future is tomorrow, not today." Mel Trudeau, OAG's senior VP-electronic market development, agrees, predicting that the year 2000 will arrive before the percentage of business-traveler tickets booked on line will grow to 20% from today's 5%. Adds Weinberger: "The Internet will not replace an existing distribution channel but simply be another one."

Airlines have been hesitant to put their tickets into this market because of concerns over security for credit-card transactions. But the pioneers say--without disclosing details--that solutions are in hand. And SITA has announced plans to provide "a secure gateway" to the Internet and Web from more than 500 cities in 100 countries. Access to its service will be restricted to "bona fide members of the airline, air transport and aerospace community, significantly reducing the security risks."

Says Kevin Krone, who is spearheading Southwest's venture into on-line ticketing: "We're confident we'll have the security issue handled adequately. …

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