Though e-tickets by far the norm for air travel, paper persists

By Kate Rice
PapertixIn 2008, IATA stopped issuing paper tickets to agents for flights abroad, and at year’s end, ARC reported that more than 99% of the tickets it processed were electronic.

Both organizations predicted that in short order, paper tickets would be little more than museum artifacts. Their stated goal was a complete adoption of e-tickets industrywide.

So it seems somewhat incredible that five years later, at the close of 2013, ARC reported that of the 143 million airline transactions it had processed in the previous 12 months, 28,400 had been paper tickets.

Granted, the presence of paper in travel has become miniscule. Of the more than one million transactions ARC processed last December, 99.92% were e-tickets. That percentage held pretty steady across the year, ranging from a low of 99.87% in March, April and June, to its high in December.

And to be sure, 80% of the 142,000 paper tickets ARC processed last year were for Amtrak, which ARC said still hasn’t adopted electronic transaction settlement.

But that still left ARC processing 1,576 paper tickets for airlines in December alone, and in April it processed almost twice that many: 2,950.

It turns out there are a number of reasons that paper tickets have failed to go the way of dinosaurs and the dodo.

First, three member airlines — ARC declined to name them — still do not support e-ticketing. But that knife cuts both ways: 26 ARC-affiliated airlines no longer support paper tickets. Even so, if an agent books an international trip through a major U.S. carrier but one leg happens to be on one of the airlines that does not support e-ticketing, the booking will require a paper ticket.

Second, Phil Myers, manager of settlement services for ARC, pointed out that e-tickets cannot handle a trip that requires too many legs and/or carriers.

Since e-tickets can handle a maximum of 16 segments, he said, a traveler booking 20 segments — for example, a round-the-world trip or travel to multiple cities — will have to be issued a paper ticket. To go the e-ticket route for such a trip, an agent would have to split the itinerary and issue multiple e-tickets, which could mean repricing portions of the travel.

Third, Lucianne Leighton, managing director of business process management and settlement services for ARC, said an agent might need to write a paper ticket manually in case of a power outage or other event that makes it impossible book a flight using a computer. But that could only happen, she said, if the agent happened to have the schedule memorized or had a copy of the OAG handy.

Papertix2In addition to the Amtrak tickets that ARC clears, four types of paper tickets are still in use today for air travel.

• There’s the handwritten flight ticket, which is used very rarely. Only about 3,000 were issued last year, and then it was generally because circumstances such as a power outage prevented any other way to issue a ticket. Agents won’t want to make this a habit; Myers said they can expect the airline to audit any handwritten ticket.

• Then there’s the ATB (for automated ticket and boarding), which is used when a carrier does not support e-ticketing or the itinerary exceeds 16 segments or a passenger insists on a paper ticket. These tickets can be printed on GDS printers.

While Myers said there’s not “a whole lot of action” for ATBs anymore, when agents ask why they still need GDS printers, ATB paper tickets are the reason. ATBs, introduced in the 1990s, reached the peak of their popularity in 1997, when ARC shipped 1.2 billion of them.

• Another paper form is the prepaid ticket (PTA), which is used when a fare is paid for in one location for travel departing from a different location. The PTA must be phoned in to the airline and later be picked up at the airport. Use of the PTA has also fallen significantly.

• An extremely rare form of ticket (fewer than 10 are issued each year) is the tour order, which dates from the days when a traveler might need a voucher or a coupon to pay a vendor such as a hotel, a car rental company or a stop on the itinerary.

While these four kinds of physical tickets can be an annoying speed bump in the booking process, they are a lot less messy and time-consuming than their forebears. The original paper tickets consisted of four copies separated by layers of red carbon: one for travel, one for auditing purposes, one a passenger receipt and one for the agency.

The red carbon was notorious for staining fingertips and shirt sleeves.

“Who could forget the red ink?” recalled Aash Shravah, director of corporate sales for Montrose Travel.

What’s more, agents like Lindsey Prumers, owner of All Travel Guru, recall that paper tickets were very labor-intensive.

“Even now, when the young kids on the block complain about this and complain about that,” she said, “we look at each other and say, ‘Well, you didn’t have to handwrite tickets.’ They are always amazed to hear about that. And think about the handwriting — you had to have really good penmanship.”

Ticketing long remained a highly manual process. Each airline issued agencies a ticket-printing metal plate, which was inserted into a “validator,” a pressure-roller device similar to credit card rollers, which are also now obsolete.

The agency’s name, location and ARC number were stamped into each plate to produce raised numbers and letters. Agencies would switch the plates in and out of the validator for each airline.

Airlines themselves phased out the plates as they began switching to ATBs in the 1990s.

But while paper tickets cost agents a lot of time to produce, Prumers pointed out that they were worth the time because “in those days, the airlines used to pay us commissions, and you could employ people to write tickets.” The carriers starting capping commissions in 1995 — coincidentally, the same year ARC introduced e-tickets — and eventually eliminated across-the-board commissions.

A major drawback to paper tickets was and remains security issues. ARC requires agencies to store them in a metal safe that weighs a minimum of 200 pounds or is permanently attached to the floor. Ticket printers must be kept in a locked room.

Although agents found paper tickets cumbersome and inefficient, a number of air travelers were loath to say goodbye to them when e-tickets were introduced.

“People were fighting progress like crazy,” recalled Carol Andres, corporate operations officer for Montrose. “They didn’t even mind paying the fee that airlines charged to have us issue the paper ticket.”

But those days are long gone, and clients have come to expect the immediacy and redundancy of digital records.

Montrose General Manager Rhonda Holguin said she suspected that if you gave travelers paper tickets today, much of the time they would probably leave for the airport without them.

Follow Kate Rice on Twitter @krtravelweekly. 
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