'Ticketless Travel' Looks Difficult for Near Future

E-tickets' appeal won't fade, but travelers may face skepticism.
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A quick heads-up for

TheStreet.com

and

RealMoney.com

readers trying to get back into the nation's beleaguered air-travel system:If, like many of us, you've become used to using so-called "e-tickets," where there's no paper trail -- or at least, not one in

your

hands -- expect problems when you try to get through airport security to your departure gate -- and maybe at that gate as well.

The days of walking up, saying your last name and flashing your driver's license are probably over, at least for some time to come. Both airport security gates and the airlines themselves are demanding much more documentation of your ticketed status and your personal identification.

I always take a printout of my confirmation email from the airline with me when I travel with e-tickets. I've only rarely had to use it -- and always only to unsnarl some reservations snafu -- but even that printed email may not be enough for some airlines and at some airports.

The larger problem is likely to be at the airport security check-in, not at the airlines' gates. Airline staffers are used to dealing with e-tickets, and they already have fairly concrete, confirmed evidence of a traveler's valid, ticketed status in their computers. But security people are much less familiar with the notion of "ticketless travel" and may interpret instructions to prohibit anyone not holding a valid ticket past security quite literally. These days, who can blame them? Yet this could lead to serious problems.

At some airlines, such as

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

, ticketless travel now covers a majority of its customers. At Southwest, 80% of all fliers use ticketless travel.

While some airlines that were pushing e-tickets actually added a cash penalty if you wanted a printed ticket --

AMR's

(AMR)

American Airlines

, for example, demanded another $10 -- a major reversion to printed tickets now seems likely. We'll likely be able to continue making reservations online with the airlines and through such online travel agents/brokers as

Expedia

(EXPE) - Get Report

and

Travelocity

(TVLY)

, but we'll also have to go through the drill of picking up actual printed tickets at airlines' airport ticket counters before proceeding to the gate or get them at airlines' ticket offices in metropolitan areas.

While that diminishes the convenience of e-tickets, it hardly spins us back into the old world of travel agents and mailed or hand-delivered ticket packets. And as frustrating as the new drills are likely to be for travelers now used to the convenience of e-tickets, it's hard to argue with the need for tighter procedures at airports.

What effect will this change have on share prices? Very little, I suspect. For the online travel agencies, the ease of finding alternative flights, buying tickets and reserving specific seats online argues that passengers will not abandon firms such as Expedia and Travelocity.

For airlines, I don't think the ease or difficulty of buying tickets will have a meaningful impact on revenue.

The real issues remain demand and passenger fears, and the long lines clogging airport lobbies early Friday morning are evidence that right now, Americans by the hundreds of thousands are eager to get where they're going -- or, for those who have been stranded by the airlines' shutdown, where they

thought

they were going Tuesday or Wednesday.

I think, however, fears of flying will very likely emerge as never before, with a profound impact on airline revenues. In addition, American and

UAL's

(UAL) - Get Report

United Airlines

have to deal with the consequences, including liability and litigation over Tuesday's lost passengers and aircraft. And struggling

Midway

has already announced that this week's shutdown was the last straw.

Don't give up on the advantages of ticketless travel -- I haven't had a conventional, physical ticket for domestic air travel for almost a year -- but be ready for more hassles and even longer delays at many airports than those faced by your fellow travelers.

Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Seymour does not write about companies that are, or have been recently, consulting clients of Seymour Group. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to send your feedback to

Jim Seymour.