Saturday, May 31, 2008

Paper Tickets

Depending on where or for how many years you have travelled by airline, you may or may not have seen a paper airline ticket. I'm not talking about a boarding pass, or the e-mail you print out from your computer, but the ticket itself. It's more like a coupon book, with one perforated tear-out page for each leg of your flight, each inscribed in red carbon with destinations, flight numbers and other industry codes. There's a picture in this article. In the old days, boarding passes were little pouches and when you checked in the agent put the appropriate coupon, along with the Warsaw Pact disclaimer and advertising junk inside the pouch. As you boarded the airplane, another agent took the coupon out and left you with the boarding pass. At the end of your trip you would have a collection of boarding passes and the final page in your coupon book, which was marked NOT VALID FOR CARRIAGE or some such. It was your receipt.

I'm saying all this in the past tense because most airlines use electronic tickets now, issuing boarding passes by matching your ID with a record of your having paid for the flight. And IATA, the International Air Transport Association, set the 31st of May this year as the deadline for elimination of paper tickets all together.

I've seen a few glitches with electronic boarding passes that says we'll have bits of paper with us for a while as we board the plane, but that's another post.

While preparing to bid farewell to the last paper airline ticket, someone I know asked who issued the first paper airline ticket, and what did it look like. I haven't managed to find a picture of one, and I bet they are vanishingly rare if there are any remaining, but I would be astonished if the first paper ticket were not issued by the first airline. It was called DELAG, and began operations in 1909, with domestic service at first, and then began transatlantic service in 1928. If you're struggling to reconcile those dates with what you know of airplanes, you haven't considered that the first airline didn't operate airplanes. DELAG carried up to 70 passengers at a time in zeppelins. I am certain that if a turn of that century German corporation accepted a fare for a journey that they would issue you a ticket. And they would inspect it carefully as you boarded.

The first airplane-based airline seems to have been the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line. It may not have had tickets at first, because it carried only one passenger at a time, but it seems to have had all the hallmarks of a modern airline. Established with the aid of a government subsidy, the airline was subject to mechanical delays, levied a surcharge for excess baggage, and had to overcome government bureaucracy to get off the ground.

Regarding the baggage charges, passengers were allowed a maximum weight of 200 pounds gross, including hand baggage. "Excess weight [was] charged at $5 per hundred pounds, minimum charge 25 cents." The more I read that, the more I suspect that that two hundred pounds is including the passenger's body weight. Or perhaps people travelled with huge steamer trunks.

My favourite part of the story is that establishment of an airline required the government to issue the country's first ever airline pilot's licence. According to Edward C. Hoffman, president of the Florida Aviation Historical Society, that license has the word "Steamboat" crossed out and "Aeroplane" typed in.

That is government participating in the pioneering spirit of aviation. It always comes back to paperwork.


Anonymous said...

For my round-the-world ticket purchase in... 2004? I was given the old paper tickets. Since then my flight bookings have been predominately internet based and therefore paperless.

An interesting read, thanks.

Lord Hutton said...

For the St Petersburg one, I would go with the Steamer trunk theory