SABRE Airline Reservation System
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On November 5, 1961, American Airlines in conjunction with IBM, announced the development of a new technology, the Semi-Automated Business Reservations Environment, Or SABRE. The project’s genesis extended back to 1953 in a chance encounter between Cyrus Rowlett Smith, then founder and chairman of American Airlines, and R. Blair Smith, a salesman for IBM, on a flight the two had been taking from Los Angeles to New York. According to Blair Smith, he was introduced to the airline president by the flight attendant, which sparked a conversation about airline reservation systems, among other things. Blair asserted that IBM could develop a computer that would be able to manage seat availability, and keep a record of a passenger’s: name, itinerary, as well as contact information.
Blair Smith’s assertion about SABRE’s capabilities alluded to some of the shortcomings of the then-existing reservation system. Prior to SABRE, airline reservations systems were manual. Seat inventories were maintained at the passenger’s point of departure. A ticketing agent would book a seat on a flight after first checking seat availability posted on a display board in each ticketing office. When a sale had been made, a message was sent via telephone or teletype to the flight’s city of origin. When a message was received, the seat count was reduced; seats were sold until the number had reached a certain point, at which time a “stop sale” message would be issued, indicating that no more seats could be sold. Another system, apart from the one that kept count of seat availability, was also needed keep a record of a passenger’s name; this was referred to as the passenger-name record (PNR).
Much like the method for keeping seat reservations, after a seat was sold on a flight, the passenger information was transferred to the flight’s originating city by telephone or teletype. Due to the heavy reliance on manual input, frequent errors occurred, resulting inaccuracies in seat availability as well as issues reconciling passenger records and seat count. Inaccurate seat count often led to an under-sale of seats. A study at the time revealed that 80% of the time, that error was man made, the fault moreover, of the airline’s reservation system.
The introduction of SABRE completely transformed this system. Whereas a reservation would take on average 45 minutes from start to finish, SABRE accomplished it in three seconds, it processed 7,500 an hour. In addition to 85,000 phone calls daily nationwide, 30,000 requests for fare quotation, 40,000 confirmed passenger reservations, 40,000 inquiries between airlines for seat availability and 20,000 ticket sales. The operation ran on two IBM 7090’s , and cost $40 million dollars.
Shortly thereafter, SABRE began to be marketed to other airlines, many of which were smaller than American Airlines. The first of which were Pan America and Delta. Each used a different computer because of their small size, the 7080 and the 7074 respectively. In tandem with this expansion, IBM developed the system 360 software. Its main innovation was software marketable to any size airline similar to Pan America and Delta’s needs. The function of which was to target the specific transaction needs of these airline’s reservation volume.
From its moderately humble beginnings, by the 1990’s SABRE became almost exclusively the reservation system of choice, used by about 200 airlines worldwide. In 2000 they split from American Airlines entirely is what is today known as Sabre Holdings. Its legacy by this time extends well beyond airline reservations systems to the car rental, and hotel industries. Travelocity is one of its well-known software users.