1960: Sabre takes off
June 29, 1999
by Leslie Goff
(IDG) -- When a team of American Airlines and IBM programmers set out in 1960 to build the first computerized transaction-processing system, the Sabre airline reservation system, most folks thought they were crazy.
American was spending $150 million on the system, a chunk of change that, at $4.5 million a pop, could have bought a fleet of 707 jets. Instead of investing the money in its core business, it was putting it into "a lot of mysterious boxes that would sit in a room somewhere," recalls Cliff Taylor, a functional designer at American who worked on the project.
"A lot of people were convinced we were loonies, but we were supremely confident because we didn't know any better," Taylor says. "There... was not much thought about failure."
Sabre's genesis, ironically enough, came about on a plane six years earlier, when C. R. Smith, American Airlines CEO, had serendipitously sat beside a top-flight IBM salesman, Blair Smith. Their conversation -- en route to Los Angeles from New York -- about the overwhelming volume of data involved in the airline reservation process led to a joint IBM/American study, released in 1954, on the feasibility of an automated reservation system.
Five years later, the two companies were still trying to get something off the ground when the technology created at MIT for the SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) air-defense project became available for commercial use. SAGE, a technological response by the U.S. military to the Cold War, gave birth to the technologies that enabled interactive, real-time computing -- and contributed more to commercial data processing than to the national defense. These technologies were put to use on the Sabre project.
By 1960, American had a semiautomated system, the Reservisor, but reservation agents still used a largely manual process of phone calls, teletype messages and paperwork to book flights. The error rate was 8 percent -- rather high, but the best any airline was managing at the time, Taylor says. It was hoped the hefty Sabre investment would reduce the error rate without increasing the cost of operations. IBM and American set up shop in midtown Manhattan.
Taylor, now 66, retired and living in Tulsa, Okla., where American relocated the Sabre system in the 1970s, came to his position from the airline's reservations department. He was in charge of screening the applicants. He couldn't hire a bevy of programmers off the street -- there simply weren't that many -- so he trained his own staff.
He administered IBM's programmer aptitude test to, and conducted one-on-one interviews with, 650 applicants from within American s reservations department. "It was remarkable," Taylor says of the number of people who applied for the project, "but this was back in the days when computers were still referred to as electronic brains. People were curious."
American s first requirement for developers was that they understand the business process -- an idea that has flourished in the 1990s, after the period of division between techies and end users. Since 1960, the evolution of the information technology professional has come full circle.
"Sabre was an ideal blending of an intelligent user community... [which] came in and learned to be computer people," Taylor says.
By the time Sabre was fully online in 1965, in a customized data center in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., the reservation error rate had dropped to less than 1 percent, Taylor notes. Moreover, although it has been tweaked and has grown more complex, Sabre today is roughly the same system the team built between 1960 and 1962.
It connects more than 30,000 travel agents and 3 million registered online consumers with more than 400 airlines, 50 car-rental companies, 35,000 hotels and dozens of railways, tour companies, ferries and cruise lines. Hardly a single IT shop supporting today's online transaction processor-driven call center systems can deny its debt to the programmers of 1960.
Goff is a frequent contributor to Computerworld. Contact her at email@example.com.
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