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High-Tech Travel Opens Up a Brave New World

October 12, 1986|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

A few weeks ago I arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York at 11:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. flight to Los Angeles. The departures board indicated that the flight would be delayed three hours. I needed to be in California for an important 4 p.m. engagement.

As other passengers began to panic, I headed for a phone. I connected my portable computer to the line and, by dialing a special number, airline schedules were soon displayed on the screen.

An American Airlines flight was leaving at noon. I made a reservation by my computer. I raced to the American terminal, inserted my credit card in a machine, and my ticket and boarding pass were issued within 30 seconds.

I got to the gate just in time, and made the flight. But how could I tell the person meeting me in Los Angeles that I would now be arriving on American and an hour earlier than scheduled?

As soon as we reached cruising altitude I used one of the phones on board. I inserted my credit card and called my friend on her car phone, giving her the new information.

Dramatic Introduction

In 20 minutes I had been dramatically introduced to the brave new world of high-tech travel.

Airlines, hotels, cruise lines and rental-car companies are beginning to experiment with new systems designed to streamline travel.

For example, what can be more infuriating than trying to check out of a hotel, only to find that the line in front of the cashier's desk stretches all the way to the ballroom? I'm not exaggerating. At some hotels, check-out waits have been known to last 40 minutes.

But some hotels are trying to do something about this.

Sheraton has installed video express checkout systems in nine of its hotels. The system, designed by Spectradyne Inc., a hotel pay-TV company, consists of a TV set with two extra buttons. One button allows guests to review their bills at any time, and the other will check a guest out of his room instantaneously if he has left a credit-card imprint at the front desk when he checked in.

Reduces Checkout Time

Sheraton likes the system because it reduces checkouts at the front desk by 20 to 30 a day; guests like the system because it saves them that time too.

"We've found the time savings can be significant," said Bob Ferullo, resident manager of the Sheraton Music City in Nashville, Tenn. "You can save as much as 20 minutes during peak checkout times by doing it from your room."

For example, about 40% of the guests at the Sheraton Music City in Nashville are using the new system to review their bills. Only 10% of the guests use the system to check out, but Sheraton expects that figure to rise to 25% soon.

On a busy day at the Sheraton Park Central in Dallas, 35% of the guests use this service for checking out.

"The system is so user-friendly," said Sheraton spokeswoman Penny Cummings, "that some people end up playing with it like it's a video game."

Recently a convention group of 200 staying at the Sheraton Dallas punched up their bills on their room TVs 517 times. (Because it's a new system, Sheraton routinely monitors guest use.) However, only 23 of them checked out using the in-room system.

And Sheraton is experimenting with a new remote check-in service. "We think this will do everything for the customers but give them a room key," Cummings said. The device, to be tested at the new Sheraton Meadowlands Hotel in New Jersey, will be a link between the hotel and Avis rental counters at La Guardia, Newark and Kennedy airports.

After testing a system similar to Sheraton's at its Dallas/Fort Worth Airport hotel, Marriott Hotels & Resorts has concluded that 90% of its guests found the service beneficial for reviewing their bills and checking out of the hotel.

Using the system to check out takes only one minute. "We have found that while our guests enjoy the human element of Marriott service and hospitality, they also appreciate having the option of a quick departure that in-room video checkout affords," said Robert Daley, Marriott's vice president of room operations.

37 Hotesl Have System

Only one in five Marriotts, roughly 37, has the system, but every new hotel will have this service. Marriott also hopes to have retrofitted its remaining domestic hotels early in 1988. "We believe that once guests become familiar with the system, they will use it every time," Daley said.

Many airlines have also embraced the concept of high-tech travel--on the ground.

United Airlines offers free computerized time, temperature and weather information to passengers in Chicago for 180 cities worldwide at (312) 956-0950.

Banana Republic, a clothing company, offers the Climate Desk. Travelers can call (800) 325-7270 for weather details for their destinations worldwide.

If you have a personal computer, you can plug into the electronic Official Airline Guide, which displays all airline schedules, and make reservations and pay for your tickets directly. The system is hooked up to Thomas Cook travel agencies, which handle the ticketing.

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