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A paper ticket can sometimes be a flight saver

The paper airline ticket is on the way out, but there are still some circumstances in which having one is advantageous. The paper airline ticket is on the way out, but there are still some circumstances in which having one is advantageous. (Frank Polich/Bloomberg News)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jane Engle
Los Angeles Times / May 7, 2008

A paper airline ticket? You're kidding.

In an age when air tickets live in the electronic ether, the paper version seems as quaint as a steamer trunk.

Quaint, yes. Useless, no.

Although 98 percent of air tickets written by US travel agents are e-tickets and some low-cost carriers won't issue any other kind, a paper ticket is sometimes the only way to get from point A to point B. And despite extra fees of up to $50, some fliers insist on paper even if they can get an e-ticket.

"Whenever I can, I get a paper ticket, in case anything happens at the airport," says Al Anolik, a San Francisco travel attorney and coauthor of "The Frequent Traveler's Guide." He frets about computer errors and power failures, plus getting his ticket endorsed over to another carrier in emergencies, a process that he says is easier with paper.

One day, travelers may lose the paper option entirely. But not yet, despite a promise by the International Air Transport Association to achieve "100 percent electronic ticketing."

"In 100 days, the paper ticket gets put in a museum," said Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of IATA, a Geneva-based trade group whose 240 members claim to carry 94 percent of international air traffic.

The museum part? Not completely true. IATA on June 1 plans to stop providing the paper ticket stock that agencies all over the globe use. All over, that is, except in the United States, where travel agencies use a different ticketing system. And each airline will remain free to print its own paper tickets, said IATA spokesman Steve Lott.

Even the June deadline, postponed from Dec. 31, is in doubt as Russia and some African and Mideast areas lag. IATA hopes these regions will be ready, Lott said, but several industry insiders I spoke with were skeptical. And if you're holding a paper ticket, it will still be accepted, Lott added.

For its part, Airlines Reporting Corp. in Arlington, Va., which handles air-ticket sales by US travel agencies, "does not intend to revoke paper tickets or restrict new stock orders from ARC-accredited travel agencies for the foreseeable future," spokesman Allan Mutén said.

Ah, the persistence of the paper ticket. It won't fly away, even though IATA says it costs up to 10 times as much to process as an e-ticket.

Here are some situations in which you'll find paper tickets and some in which you may want one:

Multi-airline trips: Some itineraries "are so complex that they don't fit into the system for e-ticket interlining," which allows a single ticket to be issued for flights on different carriers, said John Pittman, director of industry and consumer affairs for the American Society of Travel Agents.

You may have to "paper over" the gaps, especially if you're connecting with regional carriers.

Exotic destinations: E-ticketing hasn't yet penetrated some corners of the globe.

Tour operator African Travel Inc., for instance, must sometimes obtain paper tickets for clients using small airlines at technology-challenged destinations, said president Anne Bellamy.

"You have out-of-the way airports," she said, "that are just small, one-room buildings in the middle of nowhere."

Flight interruptions: When an airline cancels or delays your flight, it may agree to put you on another carrier free of charge. Or not. Whether you hold an e-ticket or a paper ticket, airlines say, you'll typically need to get it endorsed by one carrier to use it on another. Experts disagree on which is better.

"You're better off having an e-ticket record somewhere in the database," Mutén said.

But Anolik said, "It's easier when there's a disruption to have paper." Because e-ticket transactions can be forged, he said, an airline may more readily accept another's paper ticket as "real," even if you didn't have time to get it endorsed.

Computer problems: They're not common, but they happen. In any event, you should always carry a printout of your receipt or itinerary when you travel on an e-ticket as proof that it exists, experts say.

Whatever you do, make sure you know what type of ticket you're holding. Treat a paper ticket like money.

"We've had instances where clients have actually thrown away paper tickets," said African Travel's Bellamy.

In that case, fliers may be stuck paying a higher walk-up fare and wait up to a year to get a refund on the missing ticket, she said.

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