Recently, I was in Westchester County, New York, just north of “The City”, as it’s referred to by locals, and ran across a place with significant historical ties to the airline industry. No, not an obvious choice like the White Plains airport. In fact, I was driving north on Route 9 (which goes by various names, including Broadway and the Albany Post Road, depending on which political jurisdiction you’re in) through the leafy suburb of Briarcliff Manor, in relatively close proximity to the Hudson River. There’s a rail station in the vicinity (Scarborough), but seemingly nothing aviation-oriented.
A modernistic non-residential structure caught my eye on the west side of the road, and suddenly I recalled what this had been, forty-plus years ago. From 1960 until 1972, this building was the data center for American’s reservation system, then known as SABRE (Semi-Automated Business Research Environment). In 1972 this function was moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and consolidated with the rest of American’s data processing capabilities.
Via the development of SABRE, American achieved an early lead on its airline industry competitors. However, by the mid-1970s, when the redoubtable Bob Crandall arrived at American, the airline “lagged behind the computer reservations systems of several competitors, including United’s Apollo, Eastern’s System One, and TWA’s PARS”, according to Don Bedwell in the excellent Silverbird: The American Airlines Story, published in 1999. Bedwell sums up the situation at the time: “That was a crippling weakness, as AA needed all the computing power it could muster.”
When Crandall addressed this deficiency, he found out that there were a large number of CRTs intended for the reservation system sitting in the basement at Tulsa waiting to be used, but the Marketing Department was not providing the funding for their installation. Crandall rectified this, and moved on to getting direct access to the reservation system into travel agencies. Initially this was envisioned as a joint industry project, but when United decided to go it alone with its Apollo system, American, via SABRE, became the first to install a unit in a travel agency, in May 1976.
SABRE eventually became a separate subsidiary of American’s parent company (as of 1982), AMR. In 1996, it became a separate entity, Sabre Holdings Inc., and made an initial public offering of about twenty percent of its common stock. In the year 2000, Sabre was spun off from AMR entirely. Later, in 2007, it was acquired by Silver Lake and TPG.
One of the more fascinating backstories associated with Sabre concerns the CRT’s “in the basement” at Tulsa. American’s assistant VP of marketing in that era had a different vision of the future, according to Dan Reed’s 1993 book, The American Eagle. He
…thought that computer terminals soon would dot the landscape like pay telephones and that they would be readily available to consumers in a retail shopping kind of environment. Each terminal would be able to communicate with all the other terminals, allowing consumers to purchase travel on all airline from any one of thousands of locations. Such a development would do away with the need for airline-owned reservation systems. All the carriers would have to do would be to provide their schedules to the network of computer terminals and watch as travelers sold themselves airline tickets.
Some of this sounds very familiar, in our internet-focused world, although the details are different, and, in fairness, this vision emanated from an environment where airlines were regulated economically, and where fares were fairly uniform. However, there are now significant entities that are not airline-owned reservation systems that participate extensively in the selling of airline tickets, one of which is Sabre Holdings. Both the location of the data center and the current organization of the business are a long way from Briarcliff Manor, to say the least.