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Hey, What Ever Happened to Plane Tickets on Paper?

Paper boarding passes are still around, but tickets themselves haven't been printed on paper since 2008

There’s a scene in The French Connection in which Eddie Egan’s character Simonson has to fly to Washington at the last minute. He walks up to the Eastern Airlines counter at LaGuardia and hands over some cash ($54). The agent takes two tickets (round trip) off a stack on her counter, hands them to him, asks him to write his own name on them, and he walks onto the plane.

Depending on your point of view, this is either the height of jet-age glamour – waltzing into an airport and just stepping onto a plane – or a little squalid. Either way, it’s history. We all know that the security systems that allowed airports to behave more or less like train stations evaporated on or about Sept. 12, 2001. But do you remember the last time you saw a valid paper ticket for an international airline? The latest date you possibly could have was June 1, 2008.

The first e-ticket was issued much earlier than that – in 1994, by United on its West Coast shuttle flights – but the changeover progressed slowly. (People didn’t really trust computers; Matthew Broderick really did a number on them in War Games.) A decade later, fewer than 20% of tickets were electronic.

That’s when IATA stepped in.

The International Air Transport Association had been in charge of co-ordinating international plane tickets for many decades. In 1930, this association of the world’s biggest airlines put together a standard for how plane tickets that had more than one leg of a journey on them would be laid out, especially important at a time when small fuels tanks and big propellers meant a flight from London to Delhi could take six days and include a dozen stops.

By 1972, IATA rules had already made The French Connection’s 1971 scene obsolete: The organization had not only replaced the hand-written ticket with a standard pre-printed one, but it also printed, stored, and distributed every single ticket itself.

You can see the reason for the centralization and standardization: When you’re using pieces of paper that are worth potentially thousands of dollars, people are going to try to counterfeit them.

By 2004, the world’s airlines were getting antsy. It cost them about US$10 to process a paper ticket, and about $1 for an e-ticket. Facing a trio of related factors – 9/11 and war in the Middle East and rocketing oil prices – they needed to cut costs. So at the annual general meeting that year in Singapore, they all decided to force the issue. They put together a staff of 150 and gave them a three-year deadline by which every member airline – as well as every travel agent and anyone else who dealt in plane tickets – would have to go electronic.

It was a tall order. At its peak in 2005, IATA printed 285 million tickets and distributed them securely to all the airports and airlines, and about 60,000 travel agents in 115 countries.

Yasu / Wikipedia, image in public domain

Flight coupon from a handwritten air ticket (manually issued passenger ticket), issued by Biman Bangladesh Airlines in 1995

There had been some advantages to paper tickets that e-tickets were never likely to reproduce, before 9/11, anyway. Once you had one of those tickets in your hand, it was a lot like currency. You could sell it or trade it or give it away if it was a domestic flight, much like you still can with game tickets. They could be good little earners for students whose parents bought them flights home, when they preferred to sell the ticket and stay at school and drink.

But to the airlines, the savings from going paperless were huge. Industry-wide, they were estimated at US$3 billion annually.

You still occasionally find printed, or even hand-written tickets on small airlines in, say, the Caribbean, among island-hoppers that aren’t IATA members and tend to operate more like local bus services than airlines. For everyone else they came to an end on May 31, 2008, when a grinning Giovanni Bisignani, director general and CEO of IATA at the time, officially retired an oversized paper ticket in Istanbul. The next day, four years to the day after the resolution had been passed in Singapore – and six months past their original deadline – major airline paper tickets were no more.

So much for movie scenes involving frantically written plane tickets, then. E-tickets are pretty convenient – but there’s not much drama in buying a ticket on your phone.

Published Tuesday, March 7th 2017

Header image credit: Shutterstock



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