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Business Starting to Take Off : Irvine Firm's Electronic Ticket Agent Works Like Automated Teller

September 22, 1993|DEBORA VRANA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

IRVINE — So you're at a conference in Dallas, and your boss calls and says, "Surprise! You're not coming home, you're going to New York."

How do you get your new airline tickets? Do you count on an overnight service, or do you wait in line at the airport?

JoAnne Stewart is betting that one day soon you'll get your tickets by computer.

Stewart's fledgling Irvine company, Airline Computerized Ticketing, allows travelers in major cities to visit an electronic ticketing machine, or ETM, much like a bank automated teller. The traveler puts in a credit card for identification, uses the screen's touch technology and pulls out an airline ticket.

The itinerary, payment and seat assignment still are arranged through an agency, Stewart says, but the ETM cuts out delivery delay.

"It's an anxiety-buster because people don't have to wait for tickets anymore," she said. "You make your reservations over the phone, walk down into the lobby and get your tickets. It's instantaneous."

ETMs were recently installed in downtown Los Angeles at 725 Figueroa and at 3 MGM Plaza in Santa Monica. Another is in New York's Rockefeller Center, and at least one is operating in Atlanta.

Though she wouldn't release details, Stewart, 37, said the machines are doing very well. Her company charges the customer $8.75 for each transaction.

She did reveal that eight large travel agencies with major corporate clients have signed up to issue tickets through the machines.

About 300 ETMs offering both discount and full-fare tickets will be placed in major buildings by year's end, Stewart said. She estimates that 5,000 ETMs will be in hotels, banks and shopping centers across the nation by 1998.

The company is not trying to replace the travel agent--the best rates for lodging, air fares and rental cars still need to be determined by a human being, she said: "We are not in the travel business. We're in the electronic services business."

Some travel experts, however, question whether ETMs are necessary.

"I don't think there will be reason enough for people to use the machines. If your travel agent will deliver the ticket to you, wouldn't you rather have that?" asked Paul Bessel, president of the Assn. of Retail Travel Agents.

"People still need to use travel agents to get the cheapest fares," said Bessel, whose 3,000-member organization is based in Arlington, Va.

But Stewart, noting the success of bank ATMs, predicted that within 10 years people will be getting all their airline tickets, maps and even travel insurance from machines.

"That's where it's going, and it's going very fast," she said. "Electronic delivery is cheaper. With gas prices increasing, the costs of personal delivery for a travel agent are going up."

Her company's electronic delivery is cheaper than regular overnight service, Stewart said, and she offers travel agents volume discounts, which can lower delivery costs even further.

Stewart, who lives in Newport Beach, started her business in 1987 with $5 million from her own savings and from friends and family. She then spent six years researching and developing her idea.

"I had to go underground for a few years, and no one knew what I was doing. You don't want to tell too much . . . until you're sure you have the lead," she said.

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