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Flight Booking Via Internet Growing

April 16, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Alex Xenopoulos is a full-time chemist and a part-time travel agent. He has a very limited clientele, though: himself.

Like an increasing number of people across the United States, Xenopoulos is logging onto Internet travel services and checking out flight times and air fares before buying his own tickets.

``You have better control because you can play with all the options, where with a travel agent, unless you trust him completely, you’re never sure if he is looking out for you and doing all the research you would do,″ said the 35-year-old, who lives and works in suburban Boston.

In 1996, Xenopoulos and other Internet users booked $276 million worth of travel business online _ 90 percent of it for airplane tickets, a new Commerce Department study says. In 1997, the volume tripled to $827 million, with airline tickets again constituting the bulk of the business.

By 2000, the Commerce Department predicts online travel sales could total $5 billion, trailing Internet sales of computer products and books.

Operators of online travel services say their product is perfectly tailored for point-and-click devotees.

``The Internet, with its pictures, its ability to provide video clips, to offer ratings of different hotels, is really the perfect service for those travelers who want to be in control of their destiny,″ said James Marsicano, vice president and general manager of Sabre Interactive. The company operates easySabre and Travelocity, two of the most popular Internet reservations services.

But travel agents say predictions of their demise are premature, noting that even with the explosive growth in Internet sales, online reservations are projected to account for no more than 8 percent of airline tickets sales by 2000.

``Certainly the Internet has exploded in terms of its use by all segments of the population, but the fact remains that there is no way a machine is going to replace the peace of mind that travelers get from working with another human being,″ said James Ashurst, spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents.

Another possible impediment to growth is fear about the security of credit card transactions via the Internet.

The Commerce Department study found that information technology _ including business on the Internet _ is growing twice as fast as the overall economy.

Travel reservations have boomed as vacationers discovered they can go online and get highway directions, recommended itineraries, photos of hotels and other information such as the local weather. The airline ticket services link computer users to the same reservation systems used by travel agents and airline reservations agents.

Travelocity, for example, has a free service that lets users search for the three lowest fares on the travel dates they request. It and other services, including Preview Travel on America Online or Expedia from Microsoft, can send users an e-mail when a discount fare appears on a route they’ve requested.

Airlines benefit, too. They pay none or only half the standard 8 percent commission on tickets booked over the Internet and they can cut personnel costs. They also can dump unused seats at the last minute by sending e-mails offering special ``cyberfares.″

Not to be outdone, travel agents are using the Internet themselves. Some have set up their own Web sites, while others also use e-mail to tell clients about travel specials.

The American Society of Travel Agents, the world’s largest travel trade association, recently launched a ``trip request″ service. Internet users can go to ASTA’s Web site, outline when and where they want to go and member agents then bid on the business by suggesting different itineraries.

``It’s a great way for consumers who want to use the Internet more to not lose the services of a professional travel agent,″ Ashurst said.

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