Flying the electronic skies. (teletalk) Corey Sandler.
Flying the electronic skies
There are, I'm told, some people who buy their airline tickets to Kuala Lumpur on a whim, throw a few sets of underwear and a package of Dr. Scholl's in a backpack, and mosey on down to the airport.
That is not, let me assure you, the manner in which my family heads hither and thon. First of all, the actual trip is often anticlimax--most of the effort and the enjoyment comes in the planning and the list-making. For weeks before departure, we will clear the local bookstore of all "popular' travel books before descending upon the library for the really serious research. For us, a minor jaunt from New York to Washington resembles Dr. Livingstone's party, with teams of bearers carrying suitcases stuffed with guidebooks and newspaper clippings.
And so, it was with quite a bit of interest that I discovered that the world of electronic telecommunication has developed and recently enhanced a diverse set of offerings aimed at the serious traveler. These services, I found, range from travel books with descriptions and suggestions for exploration to hotel listings to passport and visa information to State Department advisories to a new service that allows the traveler actually to book airline tickets without having to set foot in a travel bureau.
In this column, we'll concentrate on the offerings of the CompuServe public telecommunications network. Similar services, though, are also available from The Source, Dow Jones, and a number of other public networks. And some of the individual services may be available on-line from their original sources.
If you are open to any suggestion as to where and how to go, or if you are interested in conferencing on-line with other avid travelers, you might want to start at the Travel SIG (Special Interest Group). The system operator for CompuServe's special section calls himself Captain Wookie, which if truly his name certainly qualifies him as an expert guide to the galaxy.
Looking for a warm port on a cold day, I found inside reports on Cancun, Isla Mujeres, and Negril Beach among the listings of the Travel SIG. There is a directory of members of the SIG with their special interests and areas of expertise, and there is a public bulletin board upon which you can electronically tack a message of inquiry. There is no extra cost for use of the SIG beyond applicable CompuServe connect time charges.
If you have chosen a place to visit, you next might want to look into a place to stay. If found two interesting electronic aids. First I looked into something called the A-Z Hotel/Travel Guide. This service claims national and international travel news headlines as well as comprehensive listings of more than 20,000 hotel properties worldwide. Data includes address and location, phone numbers, rates, facilities, and special services. You can search for a hotel by specifying a city, the hotel name or chain, or the specific facility or service you are looking for. Apparently, though, 20,000 listings are not enough to cover the desert island we were researching, Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles. I could find no entry there, and just know there has to be a place to sleep there.
One problem with A-Z is that it is very specific in asking for a city to go with the country you have specified; if you are vague about location, the guide may be only vaguely helpful.
Next I signed on to the WWX Vacation and Leisure Property Exchange. This is a specialized classified ad database with homes, condominiums, apartments, timesharing units, and even yachts and recreational vehicles for rent and exchange. Here's a sample listing, and if you can't find me at home some January evening you might try me there:
"British West Indies. 2 Bdrm house, Pine Cay on Turks & Caicos Island. Sea views from every window. White sand beach, scuba diving, snorkeling, deep-sea fishing, sailing. Private club with gourmet dining. Private planes welcome on 4000-foot airstrip. $1050 per week.'
Interested travelers are advised to write directly to advertisers. Participants offering homes pay a display charge to WWX; CompuServe users pay no added fee for browsing.
Getting Your Shots
All right, then, what about passports and immunizations? Well, Pan American Airlines has placed on line an electronic edition of the renowned Pan Am Immigration Guide used by travel agents and international corporations around the world. There is within its bounds a complete listing of countries from Abu Dhabi to Zambia. There is a compendium of immigration requirements and a listing of embassies and consulates in the U.S. I discovered, for example, that Curacao and its sister Antilles islands maintain quite a few representatives in our country, including for some reason a vice consulate in Orange City, IA.
Also in the Pan Am guide is a section with advisories of disease infected areas around the world. You get your choice of searching for countries with the plague (a distinction borne only by Vietnam) to cholera (20 countries from Burundi to poor Vietnam again, to smallpox, typhus, and yellow fever).
And if that isn't cautionary enough for you, there is the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory Service. This service on CompuServe carries advisories and warnings of such things as outbreaks of warfare, political unrest, currency and import regulations, and really important things like hotel room shortages. (I didn't see bulletins on out breaks of warm beer, surly waiters, or dishonest cabbies.)
There didn't seem to be anything untoward happening on Curacao, so I picked at random the listing for Lesotho in Africa:
"The Department of State advises American citizens planning to travel to Lesotho that road-blocks and roving patrols conducted by military and police units are becoming increasingly frequent in Maseru and Lesotho. American citizens . . . are advised that serious incidents have occurred when persons traveling in vehicles have failed to halt at the directions of such units. Visitors are urged to exercise exceptional caution at night and to consult the embassy for specific guidelines on personal security.'
Aside from that, before you set out on the road to Maseru from Lesotho, you'd probably do well to get yourself a good set of maps. A service on CompuServe called Travelvision sells maps and routing services just like the gasoline companies used to give away. Travelvision also offers atlases, globes, and auto tape tours for many parts of the world.
Buying the Friendly Skies
And by now you may be ready to buy that airline ticket. Here is where an electronic database can really show its stuff. There are two major services available here--one a long-established, capable compendium of data, and the other a recent breakthrough in almost-direct access for the traveler.
The veteran of the pair is the electronic version of the Official Airline Guide. The OAG in its original form is the phone book-like guide you may have seen on your travel agent's desk. It lists every domestic location with scheduled air service, including information on fares, type of aircraft, airport location, inter-flight connection times, and other essentials for the well-prepared traveler.
The printed version of the OAG, available in domestic and international form, is one of the most complex and changeable databases in common use by non-computer users. And so, when a few years ago the publishers of the OAG put most of that information on line, it was an important breakthrough for professional travel services. And more recently, OAG began offering access to its database directly to the public and indirectly through networks like CompuServe.
When you "Go OAG' to gain access to the system through CompuServe, you are greeted with a stark but workable system that relies on single-letter codes. You choose a starting point and a date, and select an approximate time for departure. The screen then fills with the listing for that combination. You can expand the listing to obtain a chart of applicable fares, and you can quickly reverse the direction for the return flight. Included in the OAG information is airport, departure and arrival time, flight number, type of equipment, number of stops, and meal information. Users are billed at $32 per hour over and above standard CompuServe connect rates for prime time usage; $20 per hour for off-peak usage.
TWA has gone one step further-- well, perhaps two-thirds of a step further. The airline's PARS (Programmed Airline Reservations System) is the third largest such operation in the airline industry. (Only American Airlines' Sabre and United's Apollo are larger.) The company set up PARS in 1971 for its own reservations operations, and opened its computers up to the travel agencies in 1976 after the U.S. Department of Justice knocked down proposals by the major airlines for an industry-wide system.
By the beginning of this year, TWA had enrolled 3650 travel agencies in the United States. PARS is not limited to the listings of TWA, instead including the route and fare information for every scheduled airline in the country and most overseas lines. Usage charges are $20 per hour over CompuServe connect rates for prime time and $15 per hour for non-prime usage.
Now, the difference between PARS (and its airline industry competitors) and the OAG is like the difference between a baseball records book and the seventh game of the World Series. With OAG you can find out all of the possible destinations, carriers, and fares. With PARS, you can also find out whether seats are available on a particular flight, and whether any of the ridiculously complex discount air fares are applicable. And then, using PARS, you can go ahead and book your flight.
And so, it was with a bit of excitement that many hardened travelers greeted the news that TWA had decided to open up PARS and to the public, through CompuServe. TWA calls its service Travelshopper. The information is similar to that available to the travel agent, with a claim of 100,000 "city pairs' (a "to' and a "from') and about three million(!) fare combinations. Users can check on available seats and fares and then, according to TWA, "book' their seats.
Therein lies a rub. After you've gone and selected a flight all by yourself, checked availability, and made your purchase, TWA wants you to let your friendly neighborhood travel agent print out your ticket and hand it to you. For this minimal involvement, the travel agent receives his or her full commission from the airline; you get "Have a nice day.'
Also excluded from listings in Travelshopper are vacation packages that include hotels, cars, and the like, although TWA executives hinted that such information may eventually be added. United Airlines, PeoplExpress, Singapore Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and possibly a few other smaller companies have chosen not to allow their tickets to be "sold' through Travelshopper. You can check on their flights, but the sale must be through an agent or directly with the airline.
I selected a flight at random--New York or Newark to Kansas City on June 10 for a midday jaunt to pick up some ribs for dinner. Travelshopper showed a screen very much like that offered by OAG, and I narrowed my choice down to TWA's flight 227, which connects at St. Louis. (I chose from flights on USAir, World, Eastern, Frontier, and Midway Metrolink.) I expanded the listing for the flight and found that seats were readily available in all sections on both legs of the flight--in first class, coach, and special fare areas. I also learned that lunch is served on the flight from Newark to St. Louis, and that on the flight from there to Kansas City, meal service "varies,' which is an unusually honest admission by an airline, although I suspect they intended something other than a comment on quality.
The reason for TWA's bias in favor of its travel agents is obvious--about 70% of the airline's revenues come from tickets booked by agencies, and that is not a constituency TWA seeks to anger. There was provision in the original Travelshopper plan to allow clients to charge their tickets and have them mailed directly to their homes. At the press conference announcing the Travelshopper service, a number of reporters pressed airline spokesmen for justification of the emphasis on dealing with the travel agency. They pressed so hard that a TWA vice president made an on-the-spot policy change, but not in the direction most of us were expecting. "I have just decided that Travelshopper will no longer send tickets direct to users at all,' said Edward J. Gehrein.
Don't you telecommunications users wish he had acted differently? His address, by the way, is Trans World Airlines, 605 Third Ave., New York, NY 10158.
And so, we are now at a two-thirds-of-the-way juncture. Using CompuServe or another of the public networks, we can do all of the research and planning for our vacation. We can pick the spot, check out the security, acquaint ourselves with the local plagues, find the borderlines for civil wars, and then pick our airline flight. Then, we contribute our services to the travel agent who prints out the ticket based on our research.
If it sounds as if I have my reservations about the worthiness of investing all of that time and then ending up with a travel agent anyway, well, yes I do. But then again, it could be worse. The last time we completely entrusted a trip to a travel agent we swore, when we finally limped home, never to leave the research to someone who would swear on a stack of OAGs that Cape Breton is in France and Brittany in England.
Oh well. We're off on our annual Caribbean jaunt on Sunday. Let's see: we've packed the swim suits, the suntan lotion, the baby, three cartons of guidebooks, and a portable computer with a modem. Skycap!
Photo: The user indicates date, time, and place of departure, and destination. Travelshopper lists the available flights for almost every airline in the world.