After a month's physical holiday and a month's writing holiday - in succession, not in parallel - the issues surrounding air travel remain fresh in the mind. So it was with great interest that I read cNet's report noting that the International Air Transport Association (IATA)was confirming that it would meet its June 1, 2008 deadline to eliminate paper tickets everywhere in the world, completing a switch to e-tickets.
Here's the kicker: China will be the first country to completely switch over.
This makes a lot of sense. Chinese airlines need all of the help they can get: constant price wars have driven profits in Chinese air travel into the sewer. $9 per ticket may not sound like much, but I'm sure the airlines of the PRC will take it. China Eastern Airlines (NYSE:CEA), for example, lost US$365 million last year on 35.04 million passenger journeys. In other words, it could eliminate $315 million of that loss. It would have nearly doubled Air China's (OTCPK:AIRYY) profit for the year.
Needless to say, that's significant. The question is, how else can this technology be applied in the industry to either improve efficiency or make flying more convenient?
Today, E; Tomorrow M
The systems that were the toughest to put into place for e-ticketing in China were reimbursement policies and ways of handling travel agents and ticketing offices that were, er, technology-deficient. Stunning as it is to believe, there is actually still an embarrassingly large number of places to buy air tickets in China that don't have computers or printers. No single solution appears ready to bridge this technology gap.
What would go a long way, however, would be a system that would send the e-ticket information directly to a mobile handset from a central office. I have no hard data, but apocrypha and experience suggests that the vast number of airline passengers in China are shlepping cell phones. All that would need to happen to make this system work right now would be to whittle down the information so it would fit into 1 or 2 SMS messages.
This way, a travel agent without a computer could call a central office with the necessary information, and that office could generate the m-ticket and send it to the customer's mobile. There would be all kinds of other benefits as well, including the ability to buy a ticket without having to set foot in a ticket agency (or, indeed, buy it as you drove up to the airport.) In other words, it would go a long way toward making air travel more convenient.
The mobile handset is going to be the key to the airlines' next step as well: the eBoardingPass. IATA is helping to work out the kinks in a uniform system to allow passengers to print their boarding passes at home, using a unique barcode, with which some airlines are experimenting already. At the same time, IATA is pushing self check-in systems that have been installed in some two dozen airports around the world.
Combine the two, and self check-in with the mobile handset, with the airline sending an MMS with the bar code and some basic information would be a logical next development step for China's busy airlines and overcrowded airports.
At least it would eliminate the problem of a dozen people cutting into the check-in queue at the airport.