Sabre (computer System) - History


Sabre Holdings' history starts with SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment), a computer reservation system or GDS which was developed to automate the way American Airlines booked reservations.

In the 1950s, American Airlines was facing a serious challenge in its ability to quickly handle airline reservations in an era that witnessed high growth in passenger volumes in the airline industry. Before the introduction of SABRE, the airline's system for booking flights was entirely manual, having developed from the techniques originally developed at its Little Rock, Arkansas reservations center in the 1920s. In this manual system, a team of eight operators would sort through a rotating file with cards for every flight. When a seat was booked, the operators would place a mark on the side of the card, and knew visually whether it was full. This part of the process was not all that slow, at least when there were not that many planes, but the entire end-to-end task of looking for a flight, reserving a seat and then writing up the ticket could take up to three hours in some cases, and 90 minutes on average. The system also had limited room to scale. It was limited to about eight operators because that was the maximum that could fit around the file, so in order to handle more queries the only solution was to add more layers of hierarchy to filter down requests into batches.

American Airlines had already attacked the problem to some degree, and was in the process of introducing their new Magnetronic Reservisor, an electromechanical computer, in 1952 to replace the card files. This computer consisted of a single magnetic drum, each memory location holding the number of seats left on a particular flight. Using this system, a large number of operators could look up information simultaneously, so the ticket agents could be told over the phone whether a seat was available. On the downside, a staff member was still needed at each end of the phone line, and actually handling the ticket still took considerable effort and filing. Something much more highly automated was needed if American Airlines was going to enter the jet age, booking many times more seats.

It was during the testing phase of the Reservisor that a high-ranking IBM salesman, Blair Smith, was flying on an American Airlines flight from Los Angeles back to IBM in New York in 1953. He found himself sitting next to American Airlines president C. R. Smith. Noting that they shared a family name, they began talking.

Just prior to this chance meeting, IBM had been working with the United States Air Force on their Semi Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) project. SAGE used a series of large computers to coordinate the message flow from radar sites to interceptors, dramatically reducing the time needed to direct an attack on an incoming bomber. The system used teleprinter machines located all around the world to feed information into the system, which then sent orders back out to teleprinters located at the fighter bases. It was one of the first online systems.

It was not lost on either man that the basic idea of the SAGE system was perfectly suited to American Airlines' booking needs. Teleprinters would be placed at American Airlines' ticketing offices to send in requests and receive responses directly, without the need for anyone on the other end of the phone. The number of available seats on the aircraft could be tracked automatically, and if a seat was available the ticket agent could be notified instantly. Booking simply took one more command, updating the availability and even printing out the ticket for them.

Only 30 days later IBM sent a research proposal to American Airlines, suggesting that they really study the problem and see if an "electronic brain" could actually help. They set up a team consisting of IBM engineers led by John Siegfried and a large number of American Airlines' staff led by Malcolm Perry, taken from booking, reservations and ticket sales, calling the effort the Semi-Automated Business Research Environment, or SABRE.

A formal development arrangement was signed in 1957, and the first experimental system went online in 1960, based on two IBM 7090 mainframes in a new data center located in Briarcliff Manor, New York. The system was a success. Up until this point it had cost the astonishing sum of $40 million to develop and install (about $350 million in 2000 dollars). The SABRE system by IBM in the 1960s was specified to process a very large number of transactions, such as handling 83,000 daily phone calls. The system took over all booking functions in 1964, at which point the name had changed to the more familiar SABRE.

In 1972 the system was migrated to IBM System/360 systems in a new underground location in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Max Hopper joined American Airlines in 1972 as director of Sabre, and pioneered its use. Originally used only by American Airlines, the system was expanded to travel agents in 1976.

With SABRE up and running, IBM offered its expertise to other airlines, and soon developed Deltamatic for Delta Air Lines on the IBM 7074, and PANAMAC for Pan American World Airways using an IBM 7080. In 1968 they generalized their work into the PARS (Programmed Airline Reservation System), which ran on any member of the IBM System/360 family and thus could support any sized airline. This evolved into ACP (Airlines Control Program), and later to TPF (Transaction Processing Facility). Programs were originally written in assembly language, later in SabreTalk, a proprietary dialect of PL/I, and now in C.

By the 1980s, SABRE offered airline reservations through the CompuServe Information Service and GEnie under the Eaasy SABRE brand. This service was extended to America Online in the 1990s.

American and Sabre separated on March 15, 2000. Sabre had been a publicly traded corporation, Sabre Holdings, stock symbol TSG on the New York Stock Exchange until taken private in March 2007. The corporation introduced the new logo and changed from the all-caps acronym "SABRE" to the mixed-case "Sabre Holdings", when the new corporation was formed. The Travelocity website, introduced in 1996, is owned by Sabre Holdings, and along with its three other business units, Sabre Travel Network, Sabre Airline Solutions and Sabre Hospitality, today serves as a global travel technology company. The system connects more than 57, 000 travel agents and millions of travelers with more than 400 airlines, 90,000 hotels, 30 car-rental companies, 200 tour operators, and dozens of railways, ferries and cruise lines.

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