Buying a ticket to fly from one place to the other is unbelievably different from buying a ticket for any other mode of transport. If I want to get the train to London, I turn up, hand over a small mountain of cash, and get a little piece of cardboard. I could happily give that piece of cardboard to someone else to use. I could happily use that piece of cardboard to travel to London now, or in an hour’s time; I’m not tied to a particular train. (Yes, I know sometimes you are with super-cheap advance reservations but, if you just turn up at the station and buy a ticket, the cardboard is almost infinitely flexible.)
Buying a document that will let you travel through the air is not such an insouciant activity. To purchase a ticket, you must provide your name and the ticket is then person-specific to you (or to someone else who already has an identical name or is willing to change their name to yours by deed poll). The ticket is usually for a seat on a specific flight on a specific date.
These tickets used to be issued as a piece of paper, a sort of coupon affair, that showed all your flight details across four sheets separated by layers of red carbon: one for travel, one for auditing, one your receipt, and one copy for the travel agency. But who needs paper and carbons in this electronic age? The International Air Transport Association announced that from June 2008, IATA-member airlines would no longer issue any paper tickets.
There are huge benefits to not having a paper ticket. You can lose a paper ticket. Or find that you’ve turned up to the airport without it. Or have it swiped from your pocket.
The electronic tickets are cheaper to “produce”, too; they will save the airline industry over US$3 billion each year, according to IATA, as airlines annually issue hundreds of millions of tickets. You can check-in online, make changes to a flight plan more quickly and easily, and print your own boarding pass (thus nobly doing some of the work that the airline used to do, so saving the airline industry more money, and using your own paper, toner and electricity to do the printing, thus saving the airline industry even more money) or have a pass sent to your smartphone.
So what is an e-ticket? It’s some computer code in the electronic ether. A travel agent can look at a screen and discover that yes, you do have a reservation in the airline’s computer system, for that seat on that flight. All you need to do is turn up with your passport.
Here lies my problem. What if I turn up with my passport at Heathrow and there has been a reservation-computer apocalypse? After all, glitches happen. Or what if I turn up at some tiny airport in the Himalayas and there is no electricity at all? No electronic checking in means I’d be fine to sashay to the gate if only I had my little paper ticket with me. (And if I were confident enough to trust that air traffic control wasn’t also just about to melt down.)
I’m not comfortable turning up at an airport without a physical item, a piece of paper that proves my right to be there. In fact, airlines recommend that you take the printed e-ticket receipts with you on your trip. In some airports, you need to show a printout of your “e-ticket” just to get into the airport. I’ve had this happen in both India and Egypt. Sometimes, they won’t let you into a country unless they have physical proof that you’ll be leaving again.
Yes, I know I’m technically printing out an “e-ticket receipt”, but it still feels as if I’m printing out what we used to call a “ticket”. I often need my printed boarding pass, too.
The IATA reckons the move to e-ticketing has saved 50,000 trees a year, and is environmentally friendly.
Ahem. Have you seen the length of those e-ticket receipts? By the time they’ve added on the Notice of liability limitations, the Notice of government and airport imposed taxes, fees and charges, and the Conditions of Carriage, we’re talking several pages. Not only that, you also have to print out — unless you are prepared to spend serious time with a document-editing program then communing with your printer — a small series of advertisements for hotel chains, car-hire outfits, and discounted codes for “attractions”.
That’s an awful lot more paper than four tiny red carbons. But hey, it saves the airlines money, if not the planet, so who could possibly carp?