Is Wireless Just the Ticket?

Airlines wonder if fliers want cell-phone ticketing.

Nobody is more mobile than a frequent flier, so airlines are trying to keep up with the wireless trend. But while several are offering simple things such as access to flight data, the companies are hedging on real mobile commerce applications like selling tickets via cell phones.

"The two primary items offered via wireless now are flight schedules and frequent-flier miles," said Ken Smiley, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc., in Overland Park, Kan. "Why on earth Id ever want to use my phone to check my number of miles is beyond me."

Still, airlines continue to offer more and varied wireless information services.

Delta Air Lines Inc. this month signed an agreement with AT&T Wireless Services Inc. to provide a direct link to Delta from AT&Ts wireless Web service, Digital PocketNet.

Delta has been offering wireless access through Palm Inc. handhelds and other wireless devices since March, offering access to flight schedules and itineraries, arrival and departure information, and same-day gate information. But the airline has yet to sell tickets on the wireless Web.

British Airways plc. on Jan. 4 will announce several mobile Internet services, the first part of a $17.5 million, two-year contract with IBM to come up with ways to take advantage of the wireless Web. The service includes graphical seat selection—the user sees a little picture of the seating chart and picks accordingly—as well as access to departure and arrival information from Wireless Application Protocol phones.

IBMs Pervasive Computing Group is gaining business with several airlines. As with most things wireless, those businesses in Europe and Asia are ahead.

Japan Air Lines Co. Ltd., using NTT DoCoMos iMode service, offers both wireless reservations and ticket sales. Swissair AG offers check-in from wireless phones and has plans to sell tickets wirelessly as well, according to IBM officials.

IBM provides back-end hardware—usually an RS/6000 server—as well as transcoding software to translate HTML content to a smaller format.

Smaller companies are also getting into the fray. Goldenware Inc. now offers Palm query applications that let customers receive flight information from both American Airlines Inc. and Continental Airlines Inc.

And online travel companies like Inc. and Inc., as well as wireless-specific companies like Mobilocity Inc., are looking into wireless personalization services for travelers.

Travel businesses in the United States have been slow to adopt more sophisticated and potentially risky wireless services like ticket sales.

"The airlines are holding off on allowing people to book tickets via wireless because the integration with those back-end systems is more difficult, and there are many security concerns involved," Gigas Smiley said.

Even hard-core wireless device users seemed hesitant about the idea.

"Its a tough call at this point," said Michael Steinberg, head of the New England Palm Users Group, in Cambridge, Mass. "If there were [an] additional government standard in place, like what some of the financial service firms are doing, then Id be more comfortable doing it."

Officials at IBM said that airlines are slowly warming up to the idea of wireless ticketing and that upcoming security protocols for wireless networks may speed up the adoption of such services. The next version of the Global System for Mobile Communications will enable the use of digital certificates on mobile phones.

Beyond that, airlines are not convinced that customers necessarily want to buy tickets wirelessly. Just because something is technically possible, even secure, doesnt mean its practical.

Delta has no immediate plans to sell tickets wirelessly because customers dont seem interested. The airline polled several frequent fliers about various wireless options, and "it didnt fall in the top third percentage in terms of features they wanted," said Toby Pratt, wireless project coordinator in Deltas e-Business Development Group, in Atlanta.

Because of that, "to date, security for wireless applications has been of minimal concern due primarily to the fact we dont yet support wireless monetary transactions," said Andrew Ronfeldt, a manager in Deltas IT group.

Delta does use standard encryption for its current wireless offerings, but ultimately, the airline is dependent on the security capabilities of the service provider, Ronfeldt said.

Delta plans to roll out its Virtual Check-in service to its frequent fliers. Currently in beta tests in the Jacksonville, Fla., area, the service lets customers dial in and check flight information via an automated voice response system.

Financial service companies may have been the first to make wireless sales because their experience with back-end integration gives them a technological edge.

"When they think about what mobile folks want, they dont think of ticketing first," said Michael Karasick, chief technology officer of IBMs Pervasive Computing Group, in Somers, N.Y. "I think of the ability to change things—changing your seat, changing your reservation on the fly."