Feb. 24 -- Lynnea Snodgrass held something rarely seen in her hand this week: a paper airline ticket.
"This was a little hard to read," she said, holding up a rectangular piece of paper covered in tiny print and airline codes as she arrived at the Twin Cities airport. The Plymouth resident was checking in for her flight for an 18-day tour of Australia and New Zealand.
Soon, that won't be a problem. Paper tickets will be history by the end of this year.
Northwest likely will be the first U.S. airline to issue only electronic tickets, which means the tickets only exist in a computer. In December, its issuance rate of "e-tickets" reached 99.9 percent nationally (98 percent globally). The Eagan-based airline issues more than 30 million tickets a year.
Other U.S. carriers, such as Continental Airlines with a 97 percent e-ticket rate, are on Northwest's heels as the global industry moves toward the goal of erasing paper tickets by the end of the year. Some European low-cost carriers already are completely e-ticket, but e-tickets overall account for 77 percent of all global tickets today.
Despite some international challenges, "the industry is confident that it will make the target," said Philippe Bruyere, director of the program to simplify air travel for the International Air Transport Association.
Airlines are moving toward eliminating other customer paper documents as well, such as forms for excess baggage and traveling pets. They're also expanding self-service options, including check in kiosks at hotels, on cruise ships and at convention centers. Another innovation: figuring out how travelers can check-in using cell phones and other mobile devices -- like some Asian airlines already do.
Al Lenza, Northwest's vice president of distribution and e-commerce, sees a future where technology will help airlines better monitor and manage overbooked flights and help customers better search online for customized travel options. "All of this self-service allows you to do things that were impractical before," he said.
E-tickets were pioneered by Southwest Airlines in 1994. Northwest issued its first paperless ticket in 1996 amid widespread predictions that passengers would be hesitant to lose that printed record.
Today, a paper ticket still might be issued to someone traveling on an international airline that doesn't issue e-tickets or a carrier that requires paper tickets for group tours. That was the case with traveler Snodgrass, who booked her trip through a tour group for flights on Northwest and Australia's Qantas Airways. She said she prefers the convenience of an e-ticket and checking in from home.
E-tickets don't mean consumers must buy a ticket online. People still can go to a travel agent or call an airline to book a flight, but there will be no ticket.
Paperless tickets are easier, faster and cheaper for consumers. In most cases, travelers will pay extra for a paper ticket. Northwest charges $50 for one -- and $100 to replace a lost or stolen paper ticket.
Airlines also like e-ticketing because it saves them time and money. The IATA estimates that e-ticketing will save the worldwide industry $3 billion a year. It costs $1 to produce an e-ticket vs. $10 for a paper ticket.
Airlines also save money on postage to mail tickets, paper-processing costs and distribution costs. Northwest's distribution costs have fallen 40 percent to 50 percent in the past five years, in part because of lower travel-agent commissions and more online sales, Lenza said.
"Certainly, cost savings is a factor but it's not the dominant factor," Lenza said. "In the travel industry, if you don't have (automation), you're not a competitor -- you'll lose business to other Web sites and other airlines."
The phenomenal growth of e-ticketing has driven airline Internet sales and other self-service options, Lenza said. By year's end, the airline's self-service check-in will top 87 percent and Internet sales will exceed 30 percent.
Airlines are pushing customers to book travel online.
Northwest Airlines (NYSE:NWA) has announced it is completing a 100th interline electronic ticket agreement and could be the first airline in the world to implement its 100th e-ticket accord, from as...