Sabre (computer system)

Sabre (computer system)

Sabre is a computer reservations system/global distribution system (GDS) used by airlines, railways, hotels, travel agents and other travel companies. Sabre GDS is a unit of Sabre Holdings' Sabre Travel Network division. Current North American hosted carriers include Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Cape Air, Frontier Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, Mesa Airlines, and Midwest Airlines. Its current IATA code is 1S. However some internal areas are still under 1W.

The Sabre datacenter is in Tulsa, Oklahoma-US and was subject to the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II and is intended to be part of the successor Secure Flight program for the selection of passengers with a risk profile, sometime in 2008-10.


Sabre was developed in order to help American Airlines improve the way in which the airline booked reservations. By 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 AA 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. [Different sources disagree on many of the dates. Some place the project starting in 1953, some 1957, some place the original system in Manhattan, others Briarcliff. For instance [ this CNN story] places the start date in 1960 and the cost at $150 million. The Serling book uses November 5, 1959 as the date of the announcement of the joint development and 1962 as the date of the first SABRE reservation taken at the Hartford Reservations office.] He found himself sitting next to AA president C. R. Smith. [ [ Oral history interview with R. Blair Smith] . Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Smith discusses how a chance meeting with C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines, eventually led to the development of the SABRE system.] Noting that they shared a family name, they began talking. [The official corporate history of American Airlines, "Eagle", by Robert Serling, published in 1985 by St. Martin's/Marek, recounts the story of the meeting on page 347, and indicates it was between C. R. Smith and IBM president Thomas J. Watson. ]

Just prior to this chance meeting, IBM had been working with the US 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 teletype machines located all around the world to feed information into the system, which then sent orders back out to teletypes 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 AA's booking needs. Teletypes would be placed at AA's 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 AA, 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 and a large number of AA's staff, 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 system took over all booking functions in 1964, at which point the name had changed to the more familiar SABRE. [After the name of the system was changed to Sabre, AA's official definition of the acronym was "Semi-Automated Business Research Environment".] In 1972 the system was migrated to IBM System/360 systems in a new underground location in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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 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").

By the 1980s, SABRE offered airline reservations through the CompuServe Information Service under the Eaasy SABRE [ [ More Trips Start at a Home Computer] ] [ [ Booking With a Computer] ] brand. This service was extended to America Online in the 1990s.

American spun off Sabre on March 15, 2000. Sabre had been a publicly traded corporation, Sabre Holdings, stock symbol TSG on the NYSE 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", when the new corporation was formed. The Travelocity website, introduced in 1996, is owned by this company and, along with many of its associated websites, serves as a consumer interface to the system.

The system is currently used by a large number of companies, including Eurostar and SNCF. Today the system connects more than formatnum:30000 travel agents and 3 million consumers with more than 400 airlines, 50 car-rental companies, formatnum:35000 hotels and dozens of railways, tour companies, ferries and cruise lines.

Among other products and companies, GetThere and XX/1 Multi-GDS Transaction Server are authorized products to make Sabre content available via XML.


In 1981 a study ["November Line of Sale Analysis," memo to R. E. Murray from S. D. Nason, American Airlines, Dec. 3, 1981.] by American Airlines found that travel agents selected the flight appearing on the first line more than half the time. Ninety-two percent of the time, the selected flight was on the first screen. This provided a huge incentive for American to manipulate their ranking formula, or even corrupt the search algorithm outright, to favor American flights. American eventually did just that under the name "screen science."

At first this was limited to juggling the relative importance of factors such as the length of the flight, how close the actual departure time was to the desired time, and whether the flight had a connection. But with each success American became bolder. In late 1981, New York Air added a flight from La Guardia to Detroit, challenging American in an important market. Before long the new flights suddenly started appearing at the bottom of the screen. ["Motion of the Justice Department for an Extension of Time," in "Re Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking - Airline Computer Reservations System," Docket 41686, Civil Aeronautics Board, Oct. 5, 1983] Its reservations dried up, and it was forced to cut back from eight Detroit flights a day to none.

On one occasion, Sabre deliberately withheld Continental's discount fares on 49 routes where American competed. [Memo from J. L. Ott to L. A. Iovinelli "et al.," "Subject: Continental Fares", American Airlines, Dec. 1, 1981.] A Sabre staffer had been directed to work on a program that would automatically suppress any discount fares loaded into the computer system.

Congress investigated these practices and in 1983 Bob Crandall, president of American, was the most vocal supporter of the systems. "The preferential display of our flights, and the corresponding increase in our market share, is the competitive raison d'être for having created the system in the first place," he told them. Unimpressed, in 1984 the United States government outlawed screen bias.

Even after biases were eliminated, travel agents using the system leased and serviced by American were significantly more likely to choose American over other airlines. The same was true of United and its Apollo system.Fact|date=February 2007 The airlines referred to this phenomenon as the "halo" effect. [Sabre (as with other Global Distribution Systems, such as Amadeus, Galileo, and Worldspan) facilitates the sale of seats under airline codeshare agreements.]

The fairness rules were eliminated/allowed to expire in 2004. [The original notice of rule making is available from the US Department of Transportation at, and a pdf of the final rule is at]


ee also

* Amadeus IT Group
* Sabre Holdings
* Travelocity
* List of global distribution systems
* Passenger Name Record
* Code sharing
* Electronic Recording Machine, Accounting (ERMA) - another pioneering early system. ERMA, SAGE and SABRE helped legitimize computers in business.
* Real-time operating system - SABRE was one of the first such systems
* Travel technology

External links

* [ Oral history interview with R. Blair Smith] . Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. Smith discusses how a chance meeting with C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines, eventually led to the development of the SABRE system.
* [ Sabre Holdings]
* [ Virtually There] public site for viewing reservations made through Sabre.
* [ Some History] features a history of ACP/TPF the Operating System used on SABRE

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