The Way People Used to Book Flights Was Mind-boggling — and Sometimes It Required Binoculars

Imagine the last time you booked a flight. Perhaps you did some research and compared prices. But once you located a flight, the actual time it took to book? Nearly instantaneous. At least, compared with 80 years ago.

The reigning system airlines used to book customer flights in the 1940s and '50s was pure, inefficient chaos. Just reading about it makes the blood boil and hands sweat. It didn't help that airlines were adding more flights and bigger planes to their fleets every day, shortening the honeymoon phase for even the most advanced enterprise technology.

Immediately following World War II, passenger air travel in the U.S. became more accessible and encountered furious demand. Marketed as a luxury purchase, flying across the country nonetheless required multiple legs on several different carriers. As fleets grew, ticketing presented a nightmare for both customer and airline. Travel agents helped airlines stay organized and flush with demand, for which the former received a commission, but they didn't control the inventory. It was the airlines' responsibility to record available seats. And the margin for error was high.

At the time, each major airline operated its own version of a "real-time" reservations office. There, sixty or so reservation agents would field calls from customers and travel agents. To book a reservation, they consulted a massive availability board, which attempted to account for all seats on upcoming flights using a series of small light bulbs. At one point, the boards became so large that agents needed binoculars. (If a flight was in the distant future, the agent walked to another room to consult a separate file.) Once they confirmed an available seat, the agent recorded the passenger name and information on a card. A few times per hour, another employee collected and transported the pile of cards to the availability-board operator and the ticketing office to issue personalized tickets. None of this accounts for last-minute cancellations or changes. It was batch-processing at its unholiest.

In 1946, American Airlines commissioned and introduced a smaller electromechanical terminal to help automate inventory. The Reservisor, as it was uniquely named, eliminated the large and increasingly complex availability board. Instead, each unit connected to a nearby room of switches and cables, known as the "the Brain," which recorded updated seat availability. The Reservisor processed 200 additional passengers per day and reduced staffing by 20. However, each reservation still required a telephone call and a hand-delivered note to ticketing. An estimated one in twelve reservations was incorrect.

Under increasing flight loads and customer relations pressure, American Airlines once again updated its system with a fancy new name, the Magnetronic Reservisor, which it installed at New York's LaGuardia Airport in 1952. Under the new system, agents didn't even need to be in the same building to reserve flights. Virtually any travel agent in the New York area could book a customer flight by popping a metal plate into his or her desktop unit, which communicated the request back to the Magnetronic Reservisor at LaGuardia. "Within seconds, lights on the keyset provide availability data on the specified flight," bragged the manufacturer. The agent need only flip a switch and the Reservisor updated the inventory in one second. The Magnetronic Reservisor's storage drum could hold 10,000 units of flight memory, or 1,000 flight legs per day over a 12-day span.

"Reservisor was the first commercial system to combine electronic processing and electronic communications," wrote Smithsonian Institution curator Jon Eklund in 1994. The technology "demonstrated that information could be reliably processed by a central computer" in real time.

The arrival of jet engine technology — faster, farther-reaching planes — meant the Reservisor system wouldn't cut it for long. More travel agents and better computers helped, but it wasn't perfect. Internet ticketing couldn't come soon enough. Today, American Airlines flies 6,700 flights per day to 350 destinations around the world. Then again, now you're the travel agent.

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