Airlines are flying to XML

After a summer plagued by record numbers of delayed and cancelled flights, the top U.S. airlines have decided to try to fix the clunky links between their individual electronic-ticketing systems in an effort to make it easier for stranded passengers who don’t have paper tickets to rebook flights with a different carrier.

Jim Young, managing director for cost measurement and distribution strategy at Continental Airlines Inc. in Houston, said last week that an XML-based standard for sharing electronic-ticket information is being developed by the OpenTravel Alliance (OTA) travel-industry trade association. Young is the chairman of the OTA, which includes all of the leading international airlines, computerized reservations systems and hotel chains.

At the eTravelWorld conference in Framingham Mass., Young said the OTA is looking to fast-track the XML interoperability standard in hopes of eliminating one of the major impediments blocking a full conversion to electronic tickets. A draft of the standard is expected by year’s end, and Young said a finished version could be in place before next summer’s travel season starts.

Currently, passengers who have electronic tickets have to wait in line to receive a paper ticket from their initial airline if a flight has been canceled and they want to try to switch to another carrier. In addition, airline employees must fill out a handwritten “flight interruption manifest” for each ticketholder who’s looking to rebook elsewhere.

But with an industry-standard setup based on XML, Young said, a passenger’s electronic ticket could automatically be transferred to another airline’s system. The common XML technology would provide an easy-to-process format for all the airlines and could make electronic tickets more valuable than paper ones, he added. “We want to create an environment where we’re treating our electronic customers better than our paper-ticket customers, which is certainly the opposite of what it is today,” Young said.

Al Lenza, vice-president of distribution planning at Minneapolis-based Northwest Airlines Inc., said 67 per cent of his company’s domestic flyers use electronic tickets – making it imperative that the transferability problem be solved. At the conference, executives from Chicago-based United Air Lines Inc. and Fort Worth, Tex.-based American Airlines Inc. also pledged their commitment to fixing the problem.

Some airlines have built transfer systems with other carriers that are part of their business-alliance networks. For example, passengers with electronic tickets for flights on Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines Inc. can fairly easily switch to available Air France planes. And Continental has built a connected system with America West Airlines and expects to have another system up and running with Northwest in October, Young said. But, he noted, individual connections such as those take time and money to build.

Earlier this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – another trade association that specifically represents airlines — joined with IBM to announce a single-connection network that they said would allow airlines to transfer electronic tickets between their different systems.

But that offering has yet to gain widespread acceptance within the industry. Young noted that the IATA system didn’t eliminate the need for airline workers to fill out the flight interruption manifests for passengers with electronic tickets. By contrast, he added, the XML standard would leverage technology being put into use at every major airline.

Poor weather and thousands of cancelled flights turned the past summer into a quagmire for many air travelers. Young admitted the constant stress put on the air transit system helped convince airlines to seek a long-term fix to the problem of transferring electronic tickets.

The record number of cancellations “was horrible for the industry, and it did actually create a lot of impetus to do this,” he said. “We need to find a way to make [transferring electronic tickets] easier for our passengers and for ourselves.”