In a recent post, I wrote about distribution of digital content and how online distribution is a brilliant thing because you can minimise the time music (or films) need from the artist to his or her audience. It's also brilliant from an 'instant gratification' point of view, of course.
And I think the same applies to buying tickets as well. And this works to varying degrees of satisfaction.
Airline tickets are a paradox. While I have had airline tickets which were issued manually, computers have been involved in booking and issuing them for a very long time now. All the flight and booking information is on-line. Yet, for the big airlines you need a 'proper' ticket, probably in order to ensure it can be used at all airports in all countries. While the ticket is bound to your name and you're charged a lot for letting somebody else have your ticket, it's still a fact that you're essentially screwed if you lose the piece of paper. A hefty 're-issueing fee' will be the least trouble you're facing. And that just seems like a rip-off: You have payed for a flight, a flight that can only be boarded by yourself, they've got your name and in most cases your bank details as well, in fact they usually won't issue the ticket unless it has actually been payed for – and still losing the sheet of paper that is your ticket will mean trouble.
Some airlines, most notably the 'no-frills' ones are much better in that area – they don't do tickets because they're expensive. All you get is a confirmation code and that, along with you ID will get you on the plane. Nice. Easy. Efficient. Some of the big airlines as Lufthansa seem to have similar services as well now – you can book the ticket and then have it issued at the airport with your credit card (or so). Not too bad, but I'm not sure it'll work for things like connecting flights or changing airlines.
With fast trains or cars it's not a problem to quickly go and see a band in another town spontaneously. A problem may be getting a ticket, though. Small clubs often won't keep tickets for you and rather sell them to other people who are there early (which may not be possible if you're there on a spontaneous trip). On the other hand you won't want to start the journey and fork out money for a railway ticket or fuel when you don't know you've got a ticket. A bit of a Catch-22.
Ordering tickets on the internet doesn't solve that problem either as tickets aren't virtual. Delivery will usually take a day or two and sites will only send them out around four days in advance to make sure they even arrive in bad cases (after all tickets are worthless after the date). So this option is out.
But, luckily there is a rather good combination of the benefits of the real and the virtual world around in the form of ticket agencies. These sell tickets for many events and some travel agents have special computers with printers that can issue the ticket, linked to some central database. Venues let those agencies have a contingent of the tickets until shortly before the event. This way you can buy tickets from everywhere, but you can do so locally. That's the best of both worlds – at the cost of a fee for the agencies, of course.
Some cinemas also offer online tickets now. I've seen that (using the phone instead of the internet) in South Africa more than a decade ago: You book the tickets and charge them on your credit card. Then you swipe the card at the cinema (and perhaps also enter a code you got on the phone) and a machine prints your tickets. I assume everybody wins with this. You have your tickets secured, the cinema saves money on the transaction and you don't have to queue as much for your tickets.
Come 2003, the same was available by a German cinema chain. Of course, now you can use the internet for booking, which is probably much less convenient and quick than using the phone – but much cheaper for the cinema. However, they'll charge you 50 cents per ticket extra for the privilege. That's just absurd.
So while I like the idea of having an almost virtual ticket, the way they're trying to rip you off even more with it, stops me from using it. Things booked online should be cheaper.
Finally, there's the railway. Deutsche Bahn has decent online schedules (although they were better to use before 2003) and you can also book tickets there. Originally they were mailed to you but by now they also have an 'Online Ticket' – a ticket you can print yourself. Basically you'll look up a connection, click to book it, (get and account, arrgh,) choose a way of identification (your credit card or your rail card and at the end you can download a PDF for printing with the connection information on it.
Once you're on the train, the conductor will swipe your card and punch a code from your ticket into his little machine to verify its authenticity (yeah, lots of bad UI here – why can't the machine simply display the relevant code after the card has been swiped, saving the conductor the typing which seems quite painful on the little machines they are carrying around?). So this looks like the perfect virtualisation of buying tickets.
Just that it isn't. Why? Well, in the e-mail you receive to confirm the booking, they explicitly state that it won't be sufficient to show them the ticket on your computer's screen. You'll have to have a printout. Now what's the point of that supposed to be? In which respect is a PDF file better when its printed than when it's displayed on a screen? Who didn't understand who things work here?
Your comment on concert tickets is interesting… in the states, “will-call” electronic ticketing is getting pretty common. Even many small cabarets and clubs (down to about 100 capacity) in New York have online ticketing through a service like TicketWeb where you pay online and then show your ID at the door to enter. Guess it hasn’t caught on elsewhere yet.
Before Sept. 11, Delta had a neat thing called VCI (Virtual Check In). Medallion-level frequent fliers could check in on line or by phone, and their FF card’s barcode was the boarding pass! Nothing to carry/print/etc, just have your FF card and ID and you were all set. Of course, that disappeared.
Most airlines in the US now have kiosk check-in where you can print a boarding pass at the counter using either a credit card or your knowledge of your travel plans to find your reservation. I usually just put the 6-character PNR code in my Palm and use that; it’s faster for me to type that in than to dig out a CC.
International travel is harder to get away from paper tickets for a number of reasons, but US airlines are trying really hard to do so. Legally, ticket stock is a negotiable instrument and therefore there are a lot of good reasons for them to not want to have to deal with it.
brian, ckd: I have hope for ‘virtual’ ticket spreading further, if only because it’s probably one of the cheapest ways of distributions for the people selling them.
Yet, as in the railway example, I am sometimes baffled to which extent companies don’t ‘get’ it and the whole experience is ruined after it’s been run through a corporate decision making and design process.
I believe its all a issue of trust. People don’t trust the usability of automated systes all too. As we move towards the day that we trust machines more it would mean everything will get automated.
Received data seems to be invalid. The wanted file does probably not exist or the guys at last.fm changed something.