The Federal Aviation Administrations new restrictions on the use of electronic ticketing may appear to be a threat to online travel, industry experts said, but in the long-term, electronic ticketing may become another layer of security that federal agencies can tap during their investigations.
Under the new rules put in place after last weeks terrorist attacks, anyone holding an e-ticket must have a printout from the Web site on which the ticket was purchased. Like other passengers, they must also show identification when they check in at the gate.
Short-term, the airlines see the measure as a minor hassle for passengers, compared to lengthy waits for departure and canceled flights. American Airlines, for example, plans to eliminate 20 percent of its schedule as a result of the new security measures. Southwest Airlines, which relies heavily on e-ticketing, said the requirement of carrying a printout will not eliminate its program.
"The new procedures wont present any problems for our ticketless travel program. Its just a new way of doing things," said Kristin Nelson, a representative of Southwest. The airline will station supervisors at airport security checkpoints to inspect travel receipts.
Despite the new procedures, suspects were able to board planes at New Yorks airports on Thursday, Sept. 14, as operations started up. The suspects were arrested, and all traffic at New Yorks three area airports was shut down for 18 hours. The suspects were later released.
Airline experts said the new procedure simply creates an illusory sense of security. A passenger who purchased a hard copy of a ticket at a remote airline counter using cash can remain even more anonymous than one who bought an e-ticket. Electronic ticketing creates a database that reveals the passengers purchasing and travel habits, credit card information, address and on which network the ticket was purchased.
In fact, the ability to gather online information and plans to use the Computer-Assisted Profiling System (CAPS) have created alarm among some privacy advocates. The Electronic Privacy Information Center has objected in the past to the requirement that passengers even be required to show an ID.
"At the airport ticket counter, passengers check their luggage — not their constitutional rights," several privacy advocates, including EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in a letter to Vice President Al Gore in 1997.
Department of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta sought to allay fears on privacy violations, even as he instituted sharp new security measures. "In a democracy, there is always a balance between freedom and security," Mineta said in a prepared statement. "Our transportation systems, reflecting the values of our society, have always operated in an open and accessible manner. And they will again."
Currently, the CAPS taps into the major U.S. air carriers computer reservation systems and is not linked to law enforcement or other databases. But that could change under the new sense of urgency about fighting terrorism.
Mike Boyd, an airport security expert and president of aviation consultancy The Boyd Group, calls the FAAs e-ticket restriction "eyewash" that does not go to the root of the security problems at airports. Employees at the security checkpoints are often minimum-wage employees with only a few hours of training. "When you go through the security checkpoint with a fax that says e-ticket, you may be dealing with people who are not able to read English," Boyd said.
Nonetheless, the new security measures — on top of passengers reluctance to board planes after the terrorist hijacking — will strike a devastating blow to the airlines, the online travel agencies and traditional travel agents, Boyd said. "The secretary of transportation just gave the terrorists another victory," he said.
For the airlines — particularly American and United Airlines — that are struggling to cope with the tragedy while restoring operations, the Internet proved an invaluable tool.
Instead of booking tickets online, the carriers offered frequent updates on the status of flights, victims and assistance. Meanwhile, the snarled traffic and stranded customers forced the major online travel agencies — Expedia, Hotwire, Orbitz, Priceline.com and Travelocity.com — to revert to the telephones, offering only sketchy information online.
In addition to the major online booking firms, more than 570,000 travel agencies sell tickets on their Web sites. For most of those brick-and-mortars, which are struggling to cope with rapidly falling airline commissions, the expected drop in traffic will challenge their ability to stay in business, said Robert Polk, president of Polk Travel in Denver.