Electronic Airline Reservation System (SABRE)

As the Cold War heated up during the 1950s, the United States installed an enormous number of missiles, radars, and nuclear weapons to track and respond to nuclear war. WWII radars were good enough for propeller planes but the delay between detection and analysis proved too slow for jet engines and missiles.


As the first step in a master defense plan, the United States created a series of computer-assisted command-and-control centers. These featured an MIT-designed computer system called Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE.

Enormous computers automatically translated input from radar stations into graphics showing airborne threats and trajectories around large parts of the world. The SAGE systems were finished in 1963, just in time to be rendered obsolete. They were replaced by better systems under the control of North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD).

Mr. Smith, meet Mr. Smith

In 1953, American Airlines president C.R. Smith sat next to IBM salesman R. Blair Smith. C.R. described American Airlines’ travails handling an ever-increasing number of flights around the world. Blaire thought a commercial version of SAGE, the tracked countless flights, might be the starting point of a solution.

Eventually, IBM and American Airlines worked together to build a “Passenger Name Record” (PRN) system, to track all people and flights. Declassified SAGE technology formed the core of the system. Reflecting that the project was experimental, American Airlines named the system Semi-Automated Business Research Environment (SABRE).

Sabre went live in 1964. Rather than the slow and error-prone card-based system in use, an IBM mainframe computer tracked everything. Reservations, flight check-ins, schedules: Sabre handled it all. It took 400 FTE years and cost just under $40 million ($385 million adjusted to 2019) to develop. Other airlines created their own reservation systems but Sabre went online first, a year earlier and proved more reliable.

Sabre Takes Over the World

In 1972, travel agents still called airlines to inquire about routes, fares, and availability. Some knew about Sabre and asked to access the system directly, adding value and lowering costs for both the travel agents and airlines. American Airlines agreed and, during the 1970s, granted access to authorized third-parties.

Eventually, other airlines joined and Sabre offered the ability for travel agents to find the lowest priced fare across all airlines, not just American Airlines flights. By the 1980s the system, in use by 130,000 travel agents worldwide, enabled basic searching through proprietary consumer computer networks.

By the 1990s it became clear that Sabre did not belong in the American Airlines IT department. In 1996 it spun off into its own company, The Sabre Technology Group. Today, Sabre technology powers online airline search technology.