Looking At SMS & Voice-based Ticketing Services To Reach The Masses: RK Tandon, MD, IRCTC

1 May, 2012

IRCTC is arguably the most prominent government run digital commerce initiative in India, with much of its success related to addressing the big pain point of consumers queuing up to book train tickets. It is now enhancing mobile ticketing tools with SMS as a ticket and is reviving its air ticketing business. Techcircle.in caught up with RK Tandon, managing director, IRCTC to find out what's new in the air ticketing relaunch, how is it leveraging  mobile to bring its services to the masses, status check on the proposed payment wallet  and more.

Train to hotels to now air tickets. Air ticketing was launched in 2010 so why was it a non starter till now and whats's the game-plan to take on the private OTAs in their established space?

We had train ticketing and over a period added hotels and packages. One missing link in our services was air travel, but we are launching air ticketing on our portal and that will make us a complete package.

What IRCTC did earlier was rather than doing everything in-house we tied up with players (agents) who were already doing air ticketing and it was available on the IRCTC portal as a platform but the rest of the process was taken care by the partner(s). What's different now is that we have tied up with various airlines and taken seats inventory directly from them and we are doing everything ourselves.

Coming to competition, if you say IRCTC has not become as popular (as private OTAs), I will dispel that notion first. The growth that we have seen is outstanding with 10 times jump in revenues from tourism (hotel packages) in past three years. Secondly, we have the advantage of being a PSU so there is a trust element and over the last few years a huge confidence has been built in e-ticketing. Quality of service is what we are now emphasizing and building a cadre of people with skills so that they are able to solve the customers' problems. We will also look at providing more competitive rates and other value-adds.

But if air ticketing picks up in earnest it would put more stress on the infrastructure. What's the issue with servers and what's being done about transaction failures?

The key challenge we face is how to tackle the 8-8:30 AM timeslot, which is the peak time. During the rest of the day our system has enough margins. We have even blocked agents from booking tickets during that time. Today the more in-demand trains' tickets get booked in the first 15-20 minutes itself. We have already raised the bar of our servers so now we can book around 1,500-2,000 tickets in a minute which was earlier 500-1,000. If we further raise it the amount of tickets will get finished in 5 minutes as opposed to 15-20 minutes. Server upgradation is a continuous process and we have been doing that. What we are trying to figure out is what else we can do to accommodate more users besides fixing the server problem.

Coming to transaction failures, the success rate of the transaction on our portal is 80 per cent and there are various reasons why there are failed transactions. It could be because the user has stayed on the page too long and the session has expired or the amount is credited but the ticket doesn't reach the customer. There are also many banks involved and they have their own processes and shortcomings too.  We are in talks with the banks and our aim is to increase the success rate to 90 per cent. Also, the time taken at payment gateway needs to be reduced in our view. Currently, the payment gateway time takes about 1.5 minutes and we are in talk with banks to reduce it to a minute or even less.

There were even talks of a wallet or the facility to park money with IRCTC to minimize payment failures. When should that come along?

We are looking at some solution where a frequent traveler can store money with IRCTC or even make advance payments to IRCTC. There were technicalities and we have worked out many of them. RBI clearance is one of the pending issues. We are working towards it and hope to come out with it very soon.

How about leveraging mobile to reach the masses?

We have been essentially an e-ticketing services provider but Internet penetration is probably somewhere in small double digits. There is another lot of people who don't feel very comfortable in using the Internet or don't have access to it but SMS-based services or voice-based services are what we are looking to provide to them. The mobile-based non-Internet ticketing solutions is something that is more feasible today as against the past and the Railway Ministry has also taken a decision to allow SMS as a valid ticket proof to travel.

Recently, IRCTC made it mandatory to have an Indian mobile number for booking tickets. Any fix for the international traveler?

Yes, we had made it mandatory since we wanted to ensure that the individual who is using the account is a genuine buyer. We are trying to look for a way out of this one, whether we can build in some kind of check by which we can know the identity of the international traveler. Since, there are cost implications also in sending international SMSs for ticket information and other factors involved, we are still looking at it. But, the numbers are not that huge for this problem yet.

Where do you see IRCTC in the next couple of years?

In the next two years we should reach 7 lakh bookings per day (from around 4-4.5 lakh today). And if we are successful in launching the phone-based services I think there's no stopping us.