Are We Flying Paper Planes?

It was last week that the inevitable caught up with me. Ever since some airlines began charging for print-outs of tickets at airports, I ensured I had my itinerary printed at home. Yet on this occasion I reached the Mumbai airport without a printed ticket to catch my flight back to Bangalore.

Having mentally prepared to be robbed of rupees 100 by the airline, I gingerly approached the ticketing office. This is when I saw the kiosk that would print my ticket for free!

Happy at this second chance of holding on to my money, I entered the asked-of information at the kiosk and waited for my print out: the one-pager that provides basic itinerary details to allow a passenger inside the airport. The kiosk mechanically printed out not one, but four sheets of paper, one after the other; my air ticket in its legal entirety!

The airline that charged hundred bucks for a printout had just given me four sheets of paper, printed single-side, for free! If that is not shocking enough, the realisation that the life of this mandatory printout is a mere two minutes, definitely is.

The airlines do not need it, the check-in counter does not need it, the boarding gate does not need it. The only one to need this physical print is the CISF personnel guarding the entrance to the airport to allow us access. Don’t blame them for they are only following orders and executing the rules in place.

Each time we have to enter the airport to take a flight, we show this paper print-out to the CISF personnel who peers at it intently, stares at our identity proof, and then studies the itinerary yet again. Just when you begin worrying something is wrong, suddenly nods his/her head and lets you through. And that is it! A total life of two minutes.

That two minutes for some airlines is worth Rs 100 and clearly for the passenger a lot more – for without the print we would not be let in to reach the check-in counter. Yet that two minutes also leads to tens of thousands of paper prints across every airport in the country.

As per the DGCA figures, over 523 lakh people travelled by air in India in the last nine months alone. How many sheets of paper went waste to allow them into airports considering most of us print at least two pages? If we put our minds to address this one issue, we would do one huge bit for mother Earth.

We in India of course have this unique trait where every passenger is seen off by a large posse of family and friends. This was always true of railway stations and more true of airports. This railway station culture is now pretty much non-existent, other than in the government and bureaucratic circles, where with every neta or babu travelling, there is a large mass of supporters and juniors welcoming or seeing them off.

Even railway stations figured better ways of handling this situation. They use platform tickets (nowadays e-tickets) to allow non-passengers to gain access to the railway platforms. Those that break the rule have to pay a huge fine. How difficult is it for the airports to adopt a similar format and at the same time get rid of a colossal wastage of paper?

Most airports in India do not allow passengers to leave the airport once they have entered the departure terminal. There is quite a bit of red-tape involved if you indeed had to step out after obtaining the boarding pass. Yet this may indeed be the best way to solve this unnecessary issue.

A way forward would be for airports to put up prominent placards and announcements stating that only passengers with valid tickets are to enter the terminal. More importantly, announce and impose a hefty fine on non-passengers that enter the airport – for they have to leave via the same gate. After all, unlike the railways, it is not like non-ticket holders can hop on to the plane and travel as soon as they are let inside the departure terminal!

If implementing this process is considered too progressive or difficult, the airports at the least should accept electronic displays of tickets or itineraries for passenger verification. This would immediately reduce if not completely remove the need to waste over 100 million paper print-outs a year!

In this day where Indian Railways and progressive state bus services like KSRTC allow e-ticket verification on phones and other digital screens, clearly the airports insisting on a physical print seems prehistoric. How difficult is it for them to confirm the itinerary on a digital screen, since every passenger would easily have access to a phone and most to a tablet or laptop?

– First published in Economic Times, December 26, 2012. Original article can be found here.