Friday, August 03, 2012

Mobile ticketing. Good news but better have good IT.

From Mobile Commerce Daily:

Following a successful test on five routes, Amtrak is expanding a digital ticketing program to all trains, enabling passengers to use their smartphones to present tickets to the conductor...

Passengers using a smartphone or other mobile device can present the eTicket to the conductor by opening the document from the email.

ETickets can also be printed from any printer, including at Amtrak ticket offices and Quik-Trak kiosks.

Additionally, passengers can also buy tickets and display eTicket bar codes with the Amtrak mobile application.

With the eTicket program, passengers can also easily change reservations and lost or misplaced tickets can be easily reprinted.

Following a successful test on five routes, Amtrak is expanding a digital ticketing program to all trains, enabling passengers to use their smartphones to present tickets to the conductor.

Nice. I actually don't find mobile tickets all that big a win with the airlines most of the time; it's just not usually that big a deal to get a boarding pass from an airport kiosk. (Although I typically print out my outbound boarding pass at home when I remember.)

But I use Amtrak, most often from Boston to New York, differently than I use planes. The timing of my outbound leg is pretty set--way too early in the morning. But, for my return, I'm usually in the position of guessing how an event or set of meetings is going to play out and taking a stab at a return time that may or may not turn out to make a lot of sense. 

The problem is that, although you can change train ticket times without penalties, in practice dealing with lines at Penn Station and dealing with call queues with reservations can make changing a ticket more hassle than it's worth. If mobile tickets make the process a lot more streamlines, that's a big win.

Another mentioned advantage is that current Amtrak tickets, once issued, are essentially just like cash--as I know from experience--and are very hard to get refunded/replaced just as airline tickets once were.

For most purposes, this shift away from significant value being embedded in arbitrary bits of paper is a welcome one--but it does raise the stakes on back-end infrastructure. It has to be resilient and scalable. The network pipes going in and out have to be solid. It also potentially creates complications if always-connected mobile devices aren't, in fact, always connected (although mobile apps that store past transactions can help). 

Because, increasingly, there just won't be a good manual fall-back if the digital systems don't work.

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