Paper airline tickets about to get even more rare

Paper airline tickets are heading for extinction abroad, and they're becoming increasingly rare in the USA.

On June 1, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group representing 240 airlines, will stop providing paper tickets for flights booked by travel agents abroad. In the USA, the Airlines Reporting Corp. (ARC) says that, by the end of this year, more than 99% of airline tickets issued by travel agents will be electronic, or e-tickets.

It's been a rapid decline for paper tickets. More than 92% of all tickets issued by travel agents abroad in 2001, and more than 60% issued three years ago, were paper. But paper tickets are more costly for airlines and travel agents, and many airlines charge extra for them. E-tickets are more convenient for passengers, eliminating lost tickets, making itinerary changes easy and enabling flight check-in by computer, phone or airport kiosk. "The paper ticket will become a museum piece," predicts Bryan Wilson, IATA's program director for electronic tickets in Geneva.

Most airline tickets are sold by travel agents, though the percentage has been declining with the growth of the Internet and direct airline sales to consumers. Travel agents sell 55% to 75% of tickets outside the USA and at least 55% in the USA, according to estimates from IATA and ARC, which serve as middlemen that settle the transactions between airlines and travel agents.

E-tickets also dominate U.S. airlines' direct sales to consumers. JetBlue, for example, says its tickets are 100% electronic. Northwest Airlines says 99.9% of its direct and travel agent sales are e-tickets, and it expects to reach 100% by the end of 2008.

"The only reason we use paper is that certain areas — mostly some of the more remote Latin American areas — are sometimes unable to handle electronic ticketing," says American Airlines spokesman Tim Wagner. "However, that is such a rarity that we are now already around 98% to 99% electronic."

Babies get paper tickets

Passengers on some flights involving more than one airline or infants carried by a parent may also be issued paper tickets, travel agents and airlines say. At Delta Air Lines, infants without a seat on international flights are given paper tickets, but the airline is "working on electronic solutions," spokeswoman Betsy Talton says.

In the mid-1990s, United Airlines became the first carrier to process an e-ticket through ARC, ARC spokesman Allan Mutén says.

Frequent-flier Ellen Tyler, of Healdsburg, Calif., says she was "totally against the use of e-tickets when they first came out," because she wanted "concrete evidence" of her flight. "With computer glitches, I didn't have the confidence that the airline would have a record of my flight," says Tyler, a food industry manager. "However, now that they've been in use for several years, I've come to learn that rarely is there a mistake."

Another frequent flier, Larry Caulfield, of Sugar Land, Texas, says e-tickets "are the only way to travel," and he supports IATA's initiative to stop providing paper tickets. "Good riddance," says the manager for a trucking company. "Why didn't they do this sooner?"

IATA began its drive to 100% e-ticketing in June 2004, when 82% of tickets issued by travel agents abroad, or 28 million a month, were paper. Electronic tickets save the world's airlines more than $3 billion annually, the trade group says. Each paper ticket costs $10 to process, compared with $1 for an e-ticket.

E-tickets let airlines make faster changes to passenger itineraries, simplify administrative procedures and reduce the possibility of ticket fraud, IATA spokesman Steve Lott says.

Cutting costs for travel agents

Travel agents also prefer them. "E-tickets cut down our costs," agrees Cheryl Hudak, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, which represents 20,000 agents and suppliers. "We can e-mail or fax an e-ticket and don't have to mail or express mail a paper ticket. We don't have to worry about lost tickets or filing lost-ticket applications."

Some passengers who buy an e-ticket at the last minute before a flight may be unable to check in at an airline's self-service machine. They must check in at an airline counter, Wilson says.

Of 350 airlines and 60,000 travel agents that transact business through IATA's billing and settlement plan, 40 foreign airlines are not yet issuing electronic tickets. About 15 are expected to begin e-ticketing by June 1, and about 20 others issue only a few tickets a month. After June 1, any airline without e-ticketing capability will have to sell paper tickets directly to passengers or make a special arrangement for a paper ticket with a travel agent.

IATA had originally set a Dec. 31, 2007, deadline to eliminate paper tickets but changed to June 1, because e-ticketing was not progressing fast enough in some countries. IATA officials say the June 1 deadline is firm, and they are working hard to increase e-ticketing in Africa, the Middle East, and Russia and 11 other former Soviet republics that make up the Commonwealth of Independent States. Those regions account for 8% of travel agent sales abroad. E-tickets represent 83% of travel agent sales in Africa and 54% of sales in the CIS. E-tickets got off to a late start in Russia, because they were prohibited by Russian law until last year, IATA's Wilson says.

But the trade group expects to rapidly increase the use of e-ticketing in these regions, because it has already been successful at some of the world's most remote airports. On Lamu Island off the coast of Kenya, for example, Kenya Airways passengers buy an e-ticket online or from the airline or a travel agent. They then take a ferry to Manda Island and check in at an airstrip with a thatch-roof hut and no electricity. Their e-tickets are checked against a passenger manifest brought by ferry by an airline employee.

"If we can bring the convenience of e-ticketing even to small remote island airports with no electricity," IATA Chief Executive Giovanni Bisignani says, "I am confident … we will be successful" in these regions.