How did people book flights before the Internet?

But just under a century ago, booking your solo adventure or family vacation wasn’t so easy. Think about the steps you would take to book an upcoming trip. Now think about doing it… without the Internet.

Sounds difficult, right? No possibility to search for the cheapest fares. No question of choosing a specific seat for all these city dwellers or lovers of the aisles. No screenshots or apps to store your precious boarding pass and flight confirmation. And absolutely no chance of you having a stress-free cancellation or postponement.

Air transport is very high

After World War II, air travel became very desirable among Americans. Major airlines set up their own reservation desks where representatives took calls from travel agents and operators. Travel agents earned a commission on the flight bookings they coordinated, but they physically could not make the booking themselves, nor could the traveler. A third party was always involved and each reservation took around 90 minutes. This caused a lot of back and forth on the phone, leading to inevitable ticketing errors.

Back in the 1930s – before we had Google, Bing or even Ask Jeeves – there was a main board, which used light bulbs to show availability on scheduled flights. Sometimes flight information was stored in a separate place if there was not enough room on the availability board. Customer names and information were manually written on a card, which was then taken to the ticket office. Here, operators would manually write each ticket by hand.

This process got a bit more complicated, but once air travel started to pick up steam (Literally as well as figuratively). As stealing grew in popularity, there was greater demand to keep up and not enough physical space or hands to do so.

In 1946, American Airlines, a leader in the aviation industry, introduced a state-of-the-art computer reservation system as a temporary solution. He was called the “Reserver”. It was first installed in the American Airlines reservation center in Boston. This system was not flawless and still required some manual work from the operators, but it did speed up the booking process in the meantime.

How did it work?

The tank was connected to an electrical power room, full of various switches and cables, which worked together to digitally record updated seat availability. This new, advanced, low-labor computer terminal was able to handle an additional 200 passengers each day. There were still some major issues with this method, as expected in the start-up phase. Around 1 in 12 bookings were still wrong, which we’re sure has angered several travelers and frustrated operators.

Despite advances in technology, the communication factor was still missing. Also, it only helped with managing inventory control. Names and traveler information were still kept on index cards, which were carried from office to office throughout the reservations office.

It’s time to upgrade!

Soon after, the tank became the magnetron tank. Using a magnetic disc, a reservation agent could insert it into the desk unit along with the date of the flight and the number of seats requested. Seat availability for that specific flight would appear within seconds. If a passenger decided to purchase the plane tickets, the reservations agent could update the seat inventory on the disk with the flick of a switch.

This advanced new system was piloted at New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 1952. Using this updated technology, travel agents, and even travelers in some cases, could book remotely from the area of New York. If they had that coveted metal disc, they were able to slip it into their office and the request was communicated to LaGuardia.

The Magnetronic Reservisor had the “brain power” to memorize information from 1,000 flight steps per day over a 12-day storage period or 10,000 flight memory units. This also equated to 100 inventory seats per flight.

SABER disrupts the industry

Built by IBM for American Airlines with inspiration and expertise from the US Air Force ground control environment, SAGE, the two plants were able to collaborate on SABER. SABER stood for Semi-Automated Business Research Environment and was the first computerized reservation system. This innovation in the world of airline travel took about seven years and was finalized in 1964. SABER was able to book 7,000 reservations with little or no error.

It was also one of the first technologies to store passenger information, which made reservations easier. Although American invested approximately $40 million in this system, SABER helped the airline reach new heights. They were quickly becoming a leader and disruptor in the airline market.

The future of flight

Air travel has become a way of life and airlines have faced a massive influx of passengers seeking new destinations. Insert Internet ticketing. The internet has opened up so many possibilities in the world of air travel that getting from place to place has never been easier. We now invite you to enjoy a latte in your terminal and to thank the creators of the World Wide Web.

By Sam McCormack, contributor for


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Source: How did people book flights before the internet?

Lucas E. Kelly