Ticketing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The purchase and assignment of a reservation for a seat on a scheduled or chartered airline service, to a particular destination at a particular time and date.


The airline ticketing process commenced with the earliest days of commercial aviation. The process, adapted from that of the commercial railroad services of the late nineteenth century in the United States, consisted of a passenger receiving a ticket of receipt upon purchase for air service. This ticket was then collected upon boarding of the scheduled aircraft. The ticket not only served as a receipt for the passenger but also allowed early airlines to keep paper records of those passengers who had purchased reservations on particular flights. In the earliest days of airline travel, tickets were most often purchased directly from airline representatives, at local offices, or at airport ticket booths.

During the growth years of the airline industry, this traditional method of ticketing was sufficient to handle the relatively moderate volumes of air passengers. A regulated civil aviation industry limited the number of flights an airline could operate from any given airport. Because the number of flights was limited, and because the flights involved relatively small numbers of passengers per flight, relatively few passengers arrived for ticketing at airport ticket booths, later known as airport ticket counters.

Interestingly, the airline infrastructure in those early days left much of the responsibility of passenger ticketing in the hands of the passenger. Passengers were responsible for having in their possession a paper ticket documenting their flight itinerary. Passengers who were required to change airlines to complete their trips would in fact be required to be ticketed twice along the way, because each airline performed ticketing for its own operations.

As the airline industry became an increasingly heavily used mode of transportation, complaints voiced by airline passengers began to increase and focused in particular on the inconvenience of the traditional ticketing process. Complaints of long lines at ticket counters were among the most common passenger complaints.

Computerized Ticketing

The development of computer reservation systems (CRS) beginning in the mid-1960’s and the implementation of global distribution systems (GDS) through the late 1990’s have represented the first major steps in the advance of airline ticketing technology. These systems have assisted travel agents in ticketing even the most complicated flight itineraries. Although passengers’ tickets remained on paper, CRS systems lifted much of the burden from airline reservations agents and independent ticket agents. As a result, the ticketing process became a much more efficient procedure.

Electronic and Internet-Based Ticketing

In the early 1990’s, the idea of a ticketing process that did not involve actual paper tickets was tested. Morris Airlines introduced “ticketless travel” in 1993, followed shortly thereafter by United Air Lines. Following the strategies of hotel and automobile-rental agencies, United Air Lines began offering passengers the option of receiving a confirmation number rather than a paper ticket upon purchasing a reservation. With a confirmation number rather than a paper ticket, passengers no longer had another piece of paper potentially to lose, have stolen, or forget on the way to their flight. The airline, in turn, saved the cost of producing and shipping a paper ticket to the customer. Ticketless travel was first introduced in the United Air Lines Shuttle market serving major cities in California. The strategy was met with sufficient acceptance to be deemed successful and set the standard for other airlines to follow. By the mid-1990’s, it was estimated that more than 35 percent of all tickets issued on the airlines that offered such service were booked on electronic tickets, known as e-tickets, saving hours of time for passengers and millions of dollars for airlines.

Most recently, the use of the Internet has served as an option to complete the airline ticketing process. Internet-based airline ticketing has provided passengers with real-time information on seat and fare availability for any given flight and the ability to make flight reservations and purchase tickets. There may be no need for the passenger to interact directly with an airline representative or independent travel agent. Through this technology, passengers benefit from the conveniences of Internet-based commerce. Airlines benefit by transferring to passengers most of the work associated with purchasing a ticket, saving the airline labor costs. Labor costs have been reduced to the point where airlines are motivated to offer tickets at a discounted rate to passengers ticketing flights through the Internet.

Through both airline-sponsored and independent travel-related Internet sites, passengers can perform most of the traditional tasks associated with purchasing an airline ticket. Passengers can research schedules and fares, purchase tickets, reserve seat assignments, and, in some cases, make special requests, such as selecting particular meals or shipping special cargo.

Future of Ticketing and Self-Check-in

Although a passenger may have already purchased a ticket, a visit to the ticket counter is often mandatory for other processing tasks, such as presenting personal identification to an airline representative, checking in oversize baggage, obtaining a seat assignment on the aircraft, and receiving a separate boarding pass to be redeemed at the gate immediately prior to boarding the aircraft. As such, the advent of electronic and Internet ticketing did surprisingly little to reduce long lines and delays at airport ticket counters.

To address this issue, airlines have begun to implement self-service check-in units at airports. These machines can verify itineraries, provide standard FAA security briefings, and issue boarding passes. These machines are resulting in significant improvements in check-in efficiency and, for those that use the system, reducing the time required by passengers to complete the check-in process. As more passengers begin to use these new systems, it is expected that there will be fewer passengers waiting in lines as part of the traditional airline ticketing process. As such, the very definition of airline ticketing is a dynamic one, destined to change as the airline industry and associated technology matures and develops during the future of commercial aviation.

  • Brink, M., and D. Maddison. “Identification and Measurement of Capacity and Levels of Service of Landside Elements of the Airport.” In Airport Landside Capacity: Proceedings of a Conference Held in Tampa, Florida, April 28-May 2, 1975, and Sponsored by the Transportation Systems Center and Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. Washington, D.C.: Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences, 1975. A landmark paper identifying the service areas of airports of primary concern to the traveling public.
  • Harrop, P., and B. Halkett. Smart Airports. Oxford, England: Footnote, 1998. An anecdotal and analytical investigation of airport passenger and baggage processing technologies.
  • Young, S. B. “A Survey of Electronic Passenger Processing Technologies at Airports.” In The Handbook of Airline Operations, edited by Gail F. Butler and Martin R. Keller. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000. An examination of the development and utilization of new technologies designed to enhance passenger processing in airports.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.


Boarding procedures


United Air Lines

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