8

For the first fifty years of scheudled air travel, agents' bookings were done over the telephone. At first, charts recording space on particular flights were sheets of paper. Eventually, for large airlines, space boards covered the walls in a large reservation hall, necessitating binoculars or a telescope for a clerk to see the status of a particular flight at the other end of the hall

Source: Dictionary of Tourism and Travel, Allan Beaver, Oxford University Press, 2012

It is only for the last 30 years that Lufthansa (LH) flights have been booked using an electronic reservation system (ERS). Before that, booking was done in a huge hall at Frankfurt Airport, with boards mounted to the walls showing the individual flights, e.g., LH 400 Frankfurt-New York, with a space for each day on which they operated, for a period of several months in advance. Employees were in charge of processing all reservation requests, which they received via telephone, via telex or in writing. By attaching a pincard containing the passenger's reservation data to the board, an employee visualized the reservation and ensured that no seat was assigned twice. The hall was so big that binoculars were used for checking the boards for vacant seats on a specific flight.

Source: History of Computing: Software Issues: International Conference on the History of Computing, ICHC 2000 April 5–7, 2000 Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum Paderborn, Germany

I am interested in two claims here:

  1. Airlines centrally managed flight reservations on wall boards in large halls

  2. These boards and halls were in fact huge, so that agents had to use binoculars or telescopes to read the boards

Claim 1 sounds plausible, claim 2 a bit less but... why not. Also, the above quotes are from publications of Oxford University Press / Springer which should imply some trustworthiness. However:

  • I haven't been able to find a source for these claims in an actual airline history
  • I haven't been able to find a picture supporting either of the claims

A picture would be my favorite positive answer here!

  • 2
    I was unable to find the old system, but I did find a date for the first computerized system in Britain -- 1968 -- and a video of it being used which I find equally fascinating youtu.be/v7RMlluY0sA?t=111 – Avery Apr 17 at 11:12
  • A few sources I found are skeptical if the binoculars part, but say pretty much the same thing. I also couldn't find a picture. It makes more sense to me that they'd have official rosters and times printed and ferried to agents on a regular basis. A giant board filling an entire hall seems like a hard way to do it, when all the people using it would be internal employees. – fredsbend Apr 17 at 16:07
16

I found a full account of pre-computerized reservation systems on Wikipedia's Reservisor article. The account is sourced to a single book, which I cannot get due to worldwide library closures, but compared to the accounts in the question it has far more details on what made the binoculars necessary.

At the time, bookings were handled by a system known as "request and reply". Booking data for any particular flight, say Buffalo to Boston, would be handled by a single office. Here, each scheduled flight was represented by an index card known as a flight card. The offices were normally located at one of the airports involved, but were increasingly centralized at major airports or located at a telephone company switching office to ease the adding or removing of phone lines.

In order to book a ticket on a flight, a sales agent would call into the right booking office and request information on a particular flight. The booking agent would then walk over to a filing cabinet and retrieve the flight card. They would then return to the phone to tell the sales agent if there were any seats available. If there was an available seat, they simply checked off a box, informed the sales agent, and returned the card to the cabinet.

Problems occurred when the flights were close to full. In that case the booking agent would have to inform the sales agent that there were no seats, and the sales agent would then ask the customer if there were any other flights they might choose as an alternative. The booking agent would have to return to the cabinets each time to retrieve the flight cards; since there were many booking agents who might want to retrieve the cards, the agents couldn't take more than one at a time. During busy schedule periods, this process could stretch out the booking process indefinitely.

In 1939 [American Airlines] implemented a new system called "sell and report" that reduced the reporting needs by allowing any office to book seats without calling the central office until 75% of the seats were sold. Each office had a board of future flights that consisted of a single hole representing a flight; when the flight reached 75% a large peg was inserted that the booking agents could see, sometimes using binoculars. Once the flight had been pegged, the agents reverted to the older centralized booking system. In an era where aircraft rarely flew with 75% of the seats filled, this system dramatically reduced the number of phone calls.

And with that magical key phrase "sell and report," I was able to find the photo you were looking for!

enter image description here

This 1956 photo from PanAm's reservation room matches a written description of AA's system (from Copeland et al. cited below):

A large cross-hatched board dominates one wall, its spaces filled with cryptic notes. At rows of desks sit busy men and women who continually glance from thick reference books to the wall display while continuously talking on the telephone and filling out cards. One man sitting in the back of the room is using field glasses to examine a change that has just been made high on the display board.

Additionally, here is a 1958 photo of the TWA reservation room during the process of partial computerization, printed in the March 1959 issue of Flying Magazine. I cannot read what is written on the walls in this photo, but it appears from the caption that this room used to have a similar system and you can see that binoculars would have been helpful. According to other TWA sources full computerization in a new central building was not achieved until 1961.

reservation room

Sources

| improve this answer | |
  • perfect... thank you! – user41782 Apr 19 at 6:34
  • Excellent answer. Perhaps the book you seek is available from the Internet Archive. – fredsbend Apr 19 at 20:57

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