Air travel to become more high-tech, study says

Almost half the world's airlines plan to offer some form of personal inflight-communications by the end of 2007, a survey found.

Almost half the world's airlines plan to offer some form of in-flight communications for passengers by the end of 2007, with most favoring Internet access, e-mail and SMS (short messaging service), according to a new study released last week.

Perhaps surprisingly, more than a third of airlines surveyed also said they expect to let passengers use mobile phones on planes by that time, according to the Airline IT Trends Survey, published annually by SITA, a big provider of IT services to the air transport industry.

"Mobile telephony -- which is the least mature and probably the most controversial option -- will be embraced by 36 percent of airlines by 2007, which is quite remarkable considering the product is not yet available," said Peter Buecking, SITA's president, in a presentation Thursday that was shown over the Web.

The findings are based on responses from senior IT executives at the world's top 200 airlines, as well as big players in cargo and other markets, said SITA, which has headquarters in Geneva. The airlines that responded account for two-thirds of the world's airline revenue, it said.

The communications services are designed to snag new customers and build loyalty at a time when many airlines are struggling to turn a profit. Airlines are also turning increasingly to self-service systems, such as online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, to cut costs and move customers through airports more quickly, the survey found.

Seventy percent of the world's airlines now sell tickets through the Internet, and 30 percent of all tickets issued are electronic, up from 19 percent a year ago, SITA said.

Sixty percent of the airlines questioned reported using self-service kiosks. Most of those are tied to a particular airline today, but many will be general-purpose kiosks by 2007, where passengers can check in with any airline, SITA found.

More passengers may also be able to print boarding passes before leaving for the airport, a measure that could reduce crowding at airline counters. That's because almost two-thirds of airlines said they plan to introduce bar codes on tickets, rather than magnetic strips, by the end of 2007.

The bar codes could also allow passengers to present their boarding passes at the gate on a mobile phone or PDA (personal digital assistant), rather than using a paper copy.

Paul Coby, SITA's chairman and the chief information officer at British Airways, said airlines will be "the world's first fully Web-enabled industry."

Life will only improve, of course, if the technologies work. The high-profile failure of a computerized baggage system at Denver International Airport shows that things don't always go as planned. That system cost millions of dollars and a decade to build, but it is due to be scrapped this year, in part because it damaged or lost too many bags.

Nor is the rate of advance evenly distributed. Airlines that are strapped for cash or unwilling to spend will create a world of "haves and have nots," SITA said. That's bad news for the industry, since airlines that switch to electronic tickets only, for example, must still interact with paper-based systems at technology laggards.

"Even in North America and Europe there are several airlines that are struggling financially, making it hard for them to keep up with the technology pace-setters," Buecking said.

In the Asia Pacific, by contrast, technology investments are strong thanks to growing ticket sales. Asia Pacific airlines are now the leading innovators, according to the survey, particularly with communications services for business travelers.

Still, North America already had a considerable lead, so other regions are playing catch-up. Sixty-three percent of tickets in North America are sold through online channels today, compared to 24 percent in Europe and 10 percent in Asia, the survey found.

The report didn't discuss one of the biggest annoyances for airline passengers: being bumped from overbooked flights. Nor is technology likely to improve that much, since it results from business decisions at the airlines, said James Fremantle, an advisor with the Air Transport Users Council, a U.K. consumer watchdog for the airlines industry.

Many airlines sell a number of higher-priced, "flexible" tickets that allow travelers to cancel or switch flights at the last minute. To compensate for those cancelations and other no-shows, airlines overbook planes to ensure all their seats are full.

The Air Transport Users Council does not take a negative view of this, Fremantle said. Selling the premium-rate tickets and ensuring planes are full helps airlines offer lower fares overall, he said.

Better technology could help reduce bumping to some extent, by helping airlines build more accurate models for determining how much they need to overbook flights.

The U.K. advocacy group welcomes new technologies -- so long as they lead to a better experience for passengers, Fremantle said.

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