Follow the paperless trail

Companies are finding digital paper more efficient, secure, and economical than the tree-pulp-based variety

A paperless world is a long way off, but many businesses are taking strides to at least create a less-paper world. Companies across various industries are finding ways to cut paper waste, from issuing electronic tickets and PDF receipts to incorporating electronic document management systems.

As with so many other green technologies out there, the driving influence here isn't necessarily sparing trees nor reducing one's carbon impact on the environment (though saving one ream of paper means five fewer pounds of CO2). Rather, it's a matter of boosting efficiency; making an easier-to-maintain paper(less) trail (nice for compliance purposes); boosting continuity (a digital copy of your files is handy if a natural disaster hits); and saving cash in the long term on costs associated with printing and mailing. (For some perspective on mailing costs, U.S. businesses spent an estimated US$800 billion on direct mail correspondence to potential and existing customers last year, which translates into over 115 billion pieces of mail.)

Also a boon: less time wasted tracking down evasive faxes and archived paper documents, as well as transferring the data on those pages to electronic format.

Yeah, that's the ticket

One of the growing trends is so-called paperless tickets. ("So-called" because there's still paper involved; just far less.) Last week, the IATA (International Air Transport Association) -- which represents more than 240 airlines comprising 94 percent of international scheduled air traffic -- said that it would stop issuing paper tickets come May 31, 2008. The AITA says that airlines will save US$9 per paper ticket that way, which adds up to US$3 billion in annual savings for the industry. (Whether any of those savings will get passed on to Joe and Jane Aisle-Seat remains to be seen, but let's not hold our breath, lest we cause that little oxygen mask to drop.)

The IATA says the move will also spare "the equivalent of 50,000 mature trees each year."

Now, I've read some comments about this move, the authors of which have expressed concern that the cost of the paper tickets is essentially being passed on to the consumer, but I think that's a misconception or an exaggeration, depending on how you look at it.

If you haven't flown with a paperless ticket, here's how it works: You make your reservation and receive a confirmation e-mail. Now, you could print up that itinerary, if you need a printed point of reference, but it's not necessary. You could just access that info from your portable device, or jot down the basic on a piece of scrap paper. Then you show up at the airport before your flight and show your ID and a credit card to the nice person behind the counter (or better yet, you swipe it in one of those check-in kiosks). In turn, you'll receive one slip of paper, your boarding pass, which includes all the pertinent info. That's it.

So from a customer standpoint, it's really a lot easier than having to worry about whether your tickets have arrived, or whether you've left them at home on the bed beside the clean underwear you'd meant to pack. Plus with an e-mail confirmation, you can easily get at your details through your wireless device, just in case you've forgotten whether you're taking off at 1:27 a.m. Pacific or Eastern Time.

On a related note, The Boston Globe had an article last month about a company called Flash Seats, which is pushing electronic tickets to concerts, sporting events, and the like.

It works similarly to the e-tickets for airlines: When you order your tickets online, the order is associated with your credit card or identification. And when it's time to go to the game or show, you don't scour the house for the tickets or stand in line at will call; you swipe your credit card or driver's license as you go in. In turn, you get a paper guide telling you where your seats are.

In case your card isn't read, "venue officials verify the person's identity by asking agreed-upon security questions, such as mother's maiden name or first pet's name."

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