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Airlines Fight It Out on the World Wild Web
Illustration for TIME by John Mattos

For the web-savvy, the Internet has revolutionized the art of making travel arrangements. Yet for the moment many travelers remain either web-wary or just plain web-weary. The hype would have you believe that you're missing out completely if you're not plugged into "e-travel"--the expanding array of electronic tools that enable travelers to be their own travel agents. With e-travel, you can make a booking on an airline website or via a web-based travel service. You can also browse the Net for last-minute deals on flights and take advantage of airlines offering e-tickets, smart cards and other high-tech weapons used in the war for your business.

While both Expedia and Travelocity, the two largest web-based travel services, say they rake in more than $1 million a day, computer users still seem to prefer to use the Net for looking, not booking. The International Air Transport Association's 1998 corporate air traveler survey found that use of the Web for accessing flight information increased by 20% last year--mainly in North America and Europe. But the survey also showed that more than 70% of respondents were going online to check flight schedules and prices before booking their seats through a travel agent or directly with the airlines. Less than 1% of air ticket sales worldwide are currently processed through the Internet. The reason: travelers seem reluctant to provide credit-card information online and prefer to discuss their options with a human being.

But travel agents shouldn't get smug. Airlines are luring flyers to book directly with them by offering Internet-only deals like last-minute weekend specials. American Airlines has been taking in more than $1 million a month in Net SAAver fares. Air Canada and others are conducting ticket auctions over the Net. United recently announced a bonus of 20,000 miles to customers making ten bookings on its website in 1999.

While online seat sales are still mostly a North American marketing tool, Asian flyers are already being drawn into another airline cost-cutting exercise: e-tickets. Under the scheme now offered by Malaysia Airlines, China Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Northwest and Thai Airways, you don't receive a paper ticket, just a confirmation number when you book your seat. A confirmation slip will be issued only upon request, since airlines want to save money by eliminating paper. Qantas and Lufthansa are taking the e-ticket one step further by introducing smart cards that contain memory chips to store flight bookings and frequent-flyer points. The most unusual cyber-incentive of all may belong to Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific: log into until April 9 to bid on a holiday that includes a dinner date with Jackie Chan.


March 22, 1999

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Main Feature
With e-travel, you can make a booking on an airline website or via a web-based travel service

ASIANOW Travel Home | TIME Asia home



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