The Two Men Behind Cheaper, More Efficient Air Travel

The Two Men Behind Cheaper, More Efficient Air Travel
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If the name Smith hadn’t been so common the airline reservation system might have spent a lot more time in the virtual dark ages. When seatmates American Airline CEO C.R. Smith and IBM salesman R. Blair Smith introduced themselves during a flight from Los Angeles to New York 65 years ago, and realized they had the same last name, it was the start of a conversation that would revolutionize the airline industry, advance the economy – and help make air travel a real option for the middle class.

The meeting between Smith and Smith led to the creation of SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business Research Equipment.) Prior to that, reservation clerks sat around circular tables with an index card for each flight, marking it to note a seat had been reserved and writing out a flight ticket by hand. Each reservation took 90 minutes to complete – longer than the time it takes to actually complete many flights. The more popular air travel became, the more cumbersome the reservation system grew, with airline clerks becoming overloaded by the geometric increase in both flights and passengers. The airline or travel agent might not have even been able to complete the reservation while you waited on the phone, having to go to the flight’s file, find the appropriate card, and check off the seat you were assigned to before one could complete the reservation. The entire process was far less efficient and more costly than the reservation system today – and far more costly and inefficient than the airlines wanted it to be.

When C.R Smith explained the problem, a light bulb went on over R. Blair Smith’s head. IBM engineers, who had already been working on a new communications system for the U.S. Air Force linking a network of computers, realized they could use a similar system to send messages from travel agents to airline ticketing offices, a system that automatically notified agents of available seats, processed their booking, and printed their tickets without a human being at the other end of the phone.

Six years later, the SABRE system was launched. Other airlines, feeling the tug of competitive pressure, created their own systems, such as Delta’s DATAS and United Airlines’ Apollo. Soon, facing demands from travel agents, all airlines launched 24-7 computer reservation systems that allowed agents to share data across all airline systems. Travel agents could use any system (such as SABRE) to book a flight with any airline, a process that required only 15 seconds.

Since this big leap forward in 1976, airplane reservation systems became even more sophisticated, providing a key link in the chain that made airline booking more efficient, airlines more profitable, and travelers better able to make reservations. The impact on costs is clear. Despite a growing and more mobile population, automated reservation and ticketing operations have sped transaction times and reduced the need for more workers to match the growth in business volume.

Efficiencies in the airline reservation system have dramatically reduced the number of reservation clerks required per trip.  But they have also brought down prices and bolstered use. Along with other technological developments – and deregulation – improved airline ticketing systems have bolstered business travel, increased the volume of business, and put air travel within the reach of the vast majority of the population, making it a staple of middle-class life and small business growth. It provides a good example of how new and improved technologies make life easier, better and more efficient for all of us.

Next time you book a flight, bear in mind that the process would have taken you about 89 minutes longer if it had not been for a chance meeting on a trans-continent flight between Smith and Smith – and be grateful to improved technology and the people who pioneered it to make airline ticketing more efficient, and air travel less complex, expensive and time-consuming.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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