NWA and Delta, joined in holy corporate matrimony -- the black-widow-spider kind, where one bites off the other's head -- are set to introduce paperless boarding passes at MSP. This will inaugurate an entirely new reason for pre-flight panic. To explain, let's recap the brief history of Getting On a Plane.

In the past, they mailed you the actual ticket. It was an ugly thing spattered with obscure codes, and you treated it like a draft of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Eventually the airlines realized that millions could be saved if people printed their own boarding passes, just as they could save money if we brought our own food, or brought feathers and sprinted down the runway leaping and waving our arms.

Now you make your own boarding pass and hand it to the TSA person, who verifies that your ID matches the name on a piece of paper you printed yourself. Foolproof, that.

You show it again when you emerge from the metal detector, because terrorists might slip past the first checkpoint by sliding on their belly dressed like carry-on luggage.

Once I put the pass in the bucket for the X-ray examination, and this led to instant Catch-22 limbo -- I couldn't go through without the pass, but I couldn't get the pass until I went through. They let me go, but I got the wanding of a lifetime, and if ever there was a day I regretted wearing tinfoil boxers, it was that one.

Once, I managed to lose my boarding pass in a pocket I forgot I had. Joy: I'd printed off a spare. Despair: it didn't have the telltale TSA squiggle. Sure, it looks like tot-scrawl, but every whorl means something.

How about a counterfeit TSA squiggle?

For a moment I considered forging it, but surely I'd end up wearing a jumpsuit and playing checkers with Tom Petters. So, dripping sweat, I gave them the unapproved version. Result? "Enjoy your flight, sir." It's like the squiggle means nothing.

Now you can use cellphone images for a boarding pass. Nifty. Modern. And since my cell's battery is guaranteed to die just before I board, I'll be halfway finished drawing the bar-code lines on the screen with a Sharpie just as the phone goes dead. Progress!

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 More daily at www.startribune.com/buzz