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AIRLINES are predicting they will be taking the majority of their bookings on-line within the next four years as consumers become more adept at using new technology.

British Airways estimates that half its bookings will be made either on the Internet or via interactive TV shopping channels by 2003, while direct- sell carrier EasyJet is hoping as much as 60% of its business will be transacted electronically by the end of next year.

Lufthansa took 40,000 bookings via its Internet site in 1998 and estimates this will more than treble this year.

Such growth in direct business undoubtedly poses a threat to travel agents, but most carriers insist they are not trying to bypass them.

BA believes the trade may still account for 85% of its business in four years' time, although it expects they will be taking bookings from clients on-line rather than over the phone or face to face.

General manager of global distribution Kieron Gavan said: "Just as we are happy to sell through agents on the high street we are happy to sell through them on the Internet.

"Customers believe that agents will offer them independent advice, a range of products and a value-added service, so there is still a place for them on the Internet."

He admitted that several of the third parties BA sells through on the Internet are not established travel agents but technology companies using their technical expertise to sell flights. But he said travel agents had the advantage of specialist knowledge of the industry.

"Anyone selling on the Web needs to provide human support as a back-up because there will always be people who want to talk to someone about their on-line booking," said Gavan.

BA has followed the lead of US carriers in cutting commission for on-line bookings from 7% to 5% but Gavan said this reflected the fact it takes agents less time to take bookings that way.

"On-line bookings are largely self-service so they save the agent time and money and we want our share of that cost saving," he said.

Virgin Atlantic, which has just relaunched its Web site, said customers were less likely to book long-haul travel on the Internet than shorter, cheaper trips.

"As a long-haul carrier we don't expect to get much business on the Web at the moment," said a Virgin spokesman.

"Obviously it will become more important in the future, but experience in the US has shown it is the shorter, last-minute trips that people are more likely to book on-line."

He said less than 1% of Virgin's business comes via the Internet, and the airline expects the travel industry to continue to account for 90% of its trade in the short term.

"Our site is predominantly to offer our customers an enhanced service by providing them with a range of information," added the spokesman.

American Airlines, which has one of the world's largest Web sites, agreed it was more difficult to sell long-haul travel on the Internet.

Even though American's site in the US is well established, it has not yet started taking bookings from overseas markets.

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