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Travel info goes on autopilot

Software from Sabre Holdings would replace human operators, giving travelers access to information from their computers, handheld devices or phones.

Airline ticketing giant Sabre Holdings has launched automated travel-information software for airlines and other companies looking to replace their human operators.

The application lets travelers access data from their computers, handheld devices or phones.

Sabre Holdings, which owns online travel site Travelocity, began selling the "Sabre Inform" software this week, according to Cindy Groner, Sabre Holdings mobile travelers service director.

Companies using "Sabre Inform" can create a 1-800 number customer service line with voice-recognition software to give customers basic information, such as a flight departure gate or the cost of a rental car, she said.

The software can also create wireless alerts. Cell phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) would get a stream of 160-character e-mails warning of things like a sudden security alert at a city listed on their itinerary, Groner said.

Many airlines already use similar automated phone services, offering passengers information about their own flights, but the Sabre software would be able to tap into the most up-to-date data on an array of airlines. Sabre operates one of the largest computer-based reservation systems for travel agents.

Southwest Airlines already uses the voice-activated portion of the Sabre software on a trial basis with its employees, Groner said.

Airlines will likely consider the technology, since sending an e-mail to thousands of people at a time is much cheaper than staffing a call center, said Keith Waryas, a wireless analyst with research firm IDC. Many are already adding special toll-free numbers for business customers.

"The bread and butter for airlines is still the business traveler," he said. "They are the ones who get the most pissed off when something goes wrong anyway."

Similar kinds of wireless e-mail services were proposed in the banking industry, to check account balances or get a wireless alert if a check was about to bounce. But the services have not become widely used. Recently, Wells Fargo ended its wireless e-mail service.