How Airline E-Tickets Work


Travelers rush through the airport.
Travelers rush through the airport.
© iStockphoto

The sight of flustered air travelers digging madly through their belongings for an elusive ticket has become rare at airports in recent years. That's because more people are relying on electronic tickets, or e-tickets, when they fly.

An e-ticket carries the same information as a paper ticket. The major difference is an e-ticket is located in an airline's computer database, instead of the passenger's suitcase. It is an electronic record of the traveler's airline reservation, containing information such as the time, date and place of the flight, airport, seat assignment and travel class. At the gate, e-ticket passengers need only show a valid photo identification card such as a driver's license to claim their spot on the aircraft. Once the airline confirms the traveler's information, it issues a boarding pass that the traveler uses to board the plane.

Traditional travel companies, such as airlines or travel agencies, can assist travelers with obtaining e-tickets. But improving Internet technology also allows passengers to book their flights on their own. In fact, the passenger who uses this self-serve option may not even come into contact with the airline until arriving at the airport and presenting his ID.

To issue e-tickets, airlines must have a database that is integrated with an airline's passenger service system. That is then connected to all other partners -- airlines, airports, ground transportation and travel agencies, for instance -- to share real time information.

To book themselves on a flight, travelers can visit any number of Web-based ticketing sites. Once there, they can view the options available and use a credit or debit card to pay for their ticket. After placing the order, the electronic record of the ticket goes into the airline's database, where it holds the passenger's spot.

E-tickets have virtually replaced traditional paper tickets in the majority of airports and airlines around the world. A recent survey by the International Air Transport Association, a trade organization representing 94 percent of international air traffic, estimated that air carriers worldwide would achieve 92 percent e-ticket penetration by December 2007. In the United States, the survey estimates a 97 percent penetration. The association's goal is to have 100 percent e-ticketing used by all air carriers worldwide by May 2008, though analysts say some airlines will continue issuing a very small percentage of paper tickets.

E-Tickets Advantages

E-ticket holders receive electronic boarding passes.
E-ticket holders receive electronic boarding passes.

An e-ticket offers many advantages for both travelers and airlines, including security, flexibility, cost and convenience. At the same time, it also provides the standard assurances of the traditional paper ticket, such as seating choice, travel time options and other flexibilities.

Unlike the traveler who leaves his ticket at the office, e-tickets are impossible to "lose" because they reside in a computer database network. For this reason, they are hard to steal, as well. Passengers typically print out copies of their e-ticket, including confirmation e-mails, itineraries and other documents. All those documents can be replaced by pulling them out of the computer again, and only a person with the proper identification can actually use the e-ticket. With the old paper tickets, passengers who lost or forgot them might be charged a fee for the airline to make new ones. In some cases, passengers were required to buy new tickets at full-price. E-tickets offer a distinct advantage in this area.

A passenger also may find it easier to make changes to their travel itinerary using an e-ticket, as the travel agency or airline need only update their database with the requested changes rather than incur the expense of physically issuing a new ticket. Dealing with e-tickets is much less costly to airlines -- the industry estimates a savings of $3 billion annually if it used e-tickets only -- which makes it possible for airlines to offer more competitive fares to passengers. The tickets also are booked and processed in a more timely way, saving labor hours and cutting down on traveler frustration.

After the sale, airlines can more easily track down passengers to inform them of itinerary adjustments, cancellations and other last-minute changes. Airlines and travel agencies also are plugging into the growing numbers of devices travelers use to communicate and manage their lives. E-ticket passengers can receive everything from gate assignments to cancellation or delays through e-mail and text messaging sent to their home or business computers or to their cell phones, personal data assistants (such as a Palm Pilot), pagers or some portable combination devices that handle multiple communication tasks and data management, such as a BlackBerry. For harried business travelers, this can be especially convenient, as it provides real-time updates on their travel arrangements without slowing them down. Airlines and travel agencies also can use the system to alert travelers to special discounts or promotions, possibly saving them money. E-tickets, in short, allow airlines and travel agencies to use the strengths of today's e-culture, both for their own and their passengers' benefit.

Travel agencies save on the cost of maintaining ticket printers and ticket inventory control. Using an e-ticket often gets the passenger through the gate and on the plane quicker and with less hassle than a paper ticket as airlines encourage passengers to use the e-tickets.

Finally, using e-tickets is a more environmentally friendly approach. The IATA estimates the industry would save the equivalent of 50,000 mature trees per year, about 3 square miles of forest, if it used e-tickets exclusively.

E-Ticket Disadvantages

E-tickets allow passengers to travel more efficiently.
E-tickets allow passengers to travel more efficiently.

In spite of their advantages, e-tickets have some disadvantages. A computer crash could cause a passenger's reservation and other information to simply vanish. Most networks have backup systems in place to prevent such an occurrence, and passenger printouts of e-ticket documents can guard against this, but it remains a possibility and has happened in the past. Also, frequent flyers, such as business travelers, might make last-minute changes to their plans and forget to use the original e-tickets or apply their value to another flight. In that case, the old paper ticket might serve as a simple reminder.

With its much-improved efficiency, e-ticketing also could make some jobs, such as those at travel agencies and airline reservations desks, obsolete, adding to unemployment.

With world conflicts and security a constant issue, some experts argue e-tickets and the procedures associated with purchasing and using them make it harder to detect risks. Foreign travel also can be hindered using e-tickets, as some countries require seeing a return ticket before allowing travelers into their countries in order to ensure they are not flouting their immigration laws.

Although e-tickets can be more flexible under some circumstances, their holders can be at a disadvantage to paper ticket holders in the event a last-minute cancellation forces them to transfer to another airline. Because airlines largely invented their own networks and procedures for issuing e-tickets early on, they are not always compatible, meaning hassles for the passenger trying to transfer a ticket.

How to Use E-Tickets

Travelers can check flight information right from their computers.
Travelers can check flight information right from their computers.

Travelers can get e-tickets in a number of ways. They can contact a travel agency, which can make the arrangements. They also can contact the airline directly or use an online site.

Travelers must provide standard biographical and ticketing information, such as name and address, phone number and e-mail addresses, as well as destination and travel dates. In most cases, a credit or debit card is required for the actual purchase.

The seller or agency sends an e-mail to the purchaser's account, confirming the purchase and details of the trip. Sometimes they will send them the e-ticket (which the buyer can print) and sometimes they will send a link to an airline Web site, where the passenger can view or download the e-ticket and travel itinerary. It is a good practice to save these e-mails and print them out, as it can help confirm the ticket purchase in the event of a problem.

Some online e-ticketing services will save a traveler's flight information online, enabling that person to access it at any time from different locations simply by logging on to the site and entering a password. Printing this out will suffice as a paper receipt.

Airport security procedures usually call for e-ticket flyers to present government-issued photo identification to claim their ticket and receive a boarding pass. (International travelers: Don't forget your passport and/or visa.) In some cases, other documents or the credit/debit card used to make the online purchase may be required. Passengers should check with individual airlines for appropriate documentation requirements. It is recommended that passengers arrive and check in at the airport -- either at the airline counter or a self-serve kiosk, if available -- at least one hour prior to your flight. This allows time to iron out any last-minute issues. However, some e-ticket holders can check in for their flight from their home computer.

Once passengers satisfy these requirements, the airline issues a boarding pass, which will allow them through other security checkpoints and onto the aircraft.

The Future of E-Tickets

It is safe to say airline e-tickets are here to stay. They already make up a majority of the market, and the industry is committed to increasing that percentage. Airlines are moving toward a "self-service model," with passengers researching, booking, buying, checking in and boarding virtually without airline assistance.

As all this occurs, analysts foresee great improvements in standardizing e-ticketing among airlines. Continental Airlines, for example, this year announced it had implemented a standardized system with 77 carriers both domestic and internationally, allowing passengers to travel on any of them using a single, paperless e-tickets.

The industry also plans continued improvements in flexibility, reliability and real-time updates. Some of this will depend upon other advancements in Internet software and hardware advances, as well as improvements in wireless technology. The airlines, for instance, are working on plans to increase the number of multi-carrier self-serve kiosks at major airports. The industry also wants to adopt a standardized bar coding system to increase the speed and accuracy of check-in and boarding passes.

The public's comfort level with e-business transactions -- online bill paying, shopping and such -- is rising. Some hotels also are installing self-serve airline e-ticket kiosks in their lobbies, where travelers can make plans and receive updates on their flights. At the same time, some airlines already are charging passengers up to $20 for the "extra" service of providing them with a paper ticket. With these and other factors looming, there are many reasons to believe the paper ticket will be totally replaced by its electronic cousin, the e-ticket.

Read on for lots more information about airline e-tickets.

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