What Happens When You Book A Plane Ticket?

Have you ever wondered what happens when you buy a plane ticket, either direct with an airline or through a booking system? It was much more apparent when you received a paper ticket valid for travel. Electronic tickets make things simpler but the process is not as easy to understand.

Moving from paper to electronic tickets

It was not so long ago that many airlines still issued paper tickets. A few still do, but it’s pretty unusual these days. The electronic ticket (or e-ticket) only arrived in 1994 with Southwest Airlines credited as the first airline to offer this option. United Airlines, for example, didn’t phase out paper tickets worldwide until 2004.

Since 2008, it has been mandatory for all IATA member airlines to issue e-tickets (although some continued to offer paper tickets, usually for a fee). At the time, IATA estimated that the move to fully electronic ticketing could save the industry over $3 billion each year. The change was a significant milestone in the aviation industry. Speaking at the time, Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s Director General, and CEO said,

“Today we say goodbye to an industry icon. The paper ticket has served us well, but its time is over. An era has ended… If you have a paper ticket, it’s time to donate it to a museum.”

Prior to 2008, IATA had already made several positive changes to airline ticketing. In the 1930s, it introduced a standard form for tickets. It took this further in the 1970s with a system allowing the same ticket to be used by agencies for multiple airlines. And in 1983, it led the development of a magnetic strip holding key ticket details, an early form of an e-ticket in some ways.

United Phases Out Paper Tickets
Paper tickets were common before the 2000s. Photo: Getty Images

Loaded on airline booking systems

Once a ticket is booked, from any source, the details are sent to the particular airline reservation system. Many airlines use the same software for this, but there is no centralized ticketing agency. Airlines will create and issue their own tickets, once payments are made. This is why you will sometimes experience a delay after booking through a third party, while the airline creates the booking and issues a ticket.

Just as with earlier paper tickets, each ticket carries a three-digit identifier for the airline that issues it (American Airlines have the prestigious 001 code, Delta has 006 and British Airways 125, for example). Of course, the issuing airline can issue tickets on other airlines as well, as is common in alliances, codeshare, and joint ventures.

An electronic ticket record contains the same sort of information you would expect on a paper ticket. If you take a look at an electronic ticket receipt from a previous purchase, you will see most of the information contained there. This includes:

  • The three-digit airline code, and unique ticket number (10 digits plus one check digit)
  • Fare and tax breakdown
  • Routing details
  • Bagge details for each sector
  • Summary of fare restrictions and conditions (though not full penalties and terms)
  • Form of payment
  • Issuing airline office

Spring Airlines Launches Maiden Low Cost Flight In Shanghai
Etickets contain specified details about the ticket. Printed e-ticket receipts are common in China, not so much elsewhere. Photo: Getty Images

Simplifying travel booking and check-in

Electronic tickets have made an enormous difference to travel. With all information stored electronically, booking is much faster, and changes can be easily made. With paper tickets, many changes would require re-writing or validating the paper tickets, often in person at an agency or airline office (this writer recalls several days spent in foreign locations waiting for changes to be made to paper flight coupons). Updating an electronic record, of course, can be done from anywhere.

BA biometric gates
Electronic tickets have led to automated boarding gates. Photo: British Airways

The same electronic ticket technology has allowed more changes to follow. Online check-in only became possible once such tickets became common, for example. And mobile boarding passes, e-gates, and biometric boarding are building on this, leading to more and more contact-free booking and flying experiences.

Would you like to share any ticketing experiences? Or perhaps reminisce about the days of paper tickets?! Let us know in the comments.

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