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The history of booking systems

Just over 50 years ago, SAS introduced a revolutionary new electronic booking system. Technology has improved steadily since then, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

On February 1, 1965, SAS became the first airline to use an electronic booking system SASCO (short for SAS Computer System) that covered all of Europe, beginning a journey that would lead to undreamed-of technological innovations.

When it launch was launched, SASCO was the largest computer system in Northern Europe. Experts from eight different countries helped create the system, which was the result of close collaboration between SAS and IBM. The system monitored air travel and had to be in operation 24 hours a day. There was a reserve facility on standby as a backup solution, along with 300 large car batteries and six diesel generators in case of a power outage.Thore Erik Winderen

It took just under four seconds to book a ticket, and you avoided the problem of your ticket being sold to someone else while you were in the process of ­booking.

“I started using the system in 1967, and it made day-to-day work a lot easier – when it worked,” says Thore Erik Winderen, 72, Head of the SAS Museum in Oslo. “It often lost connection. Then all of the yellow lights would come on at the top of the keyboard. We’d shout ‘We’ve got the Christmas tree here’ and then you just had to start again with pen and paper, even if you already had the data.”

The SAS Museum presents the development of aviation from the early 1920s. It’s run by the airline’s history team, the majority of whom are former SAS staff. The computers Winderen shows us in the museum were the first of their kind in Europe when they were introduced in Copenhagen in 1958, and they remained in use until 1979. They may remind you of an old cash register.

The system had enormous capacity and stored data on an IBM 1301 disk storage unit that could hold up to 112 million characters. SASCO had a large data center at Copenhagen Airport, with a direct­connection to 300 computers in 21 cities across 13 countries. The system was also linked to 4,000 teleprinters all over the world. You called up the data center and when contact was established, you could send your message.

At the end of the 1970s, almost 500,000 transactions passed through the computer system in Copenhagen. This figure grew rapidly, reaching 1 million in 1981. By the mid-1980s, it had doubled again to 2 million.

Another landmark year was 1987, when SAS, Lufthansa, Air France and Iberia launched Amadeus, a distribution system for information and reservations between passengers and travel agents. Amadeus has since become one of the industry standards.

“The 1980s also saw things become more advanced with the NAMECHECKIN system, which provided huge data opportunities,” Winderen says. “Then we were able to search for a name and pull up the relevant booking, and it also enabled us to provide a more personal service to the customer.”

The next machine Winderen shows us is one of the more advanced boarding pass printers, which was in use from 1988.

“This was the first version where you physically took the boarding pass, pushed it in, and it came out fully printed. Before this machine, you had to write the pass by hand and make sure you used the right one.”

Boarding passes used to indicate the status of the traveler. A red pass was first class, blue was business, and green was tourist class. There was also a separate pass for standby.

“Here’s a more recent baggage tag printer from 1990,” Winderen says. “Before then, we had to write them manually. Automation came late in that respect. If you had a passenger who was traveling a long way and changing planes, you had to write a long baggage tag. If we had a baggage agreement, which was quite common, we could write all the way to the end.”

Nowadays, travelers check in themselves online, have their boarding pass on their smartphone, enter a code at the baggage machine and print out tags, then scan and drop off their ­baggage themselves. Most of the information is on their smartphone or the SAS App. Ring containing electronic passenger information.

“Automation today is very different,” Winderen says. “There’s much more to rely on, a lot more information. If we had a passenger who was traveling on a long journey, we had to physically check in a book about visas, customs clearance, immunizations and so on.”

Information and opportunities are key words for the future, according to Massimo Pascotto, Head of SAS Labs, the innovation unit that is working to both predict and shape the future of everyday travel. The lab is behind developments such as the popular SAS App, where you can do everything from checking in and selecting a seat to making an actual booking.

“Why do you like Google?” Pascotto asks. “It’s because they know you. Users are positive about ­sharing information if they get something in return.

In the future, you’ll be able to share across services. If I’m flying to London, I’ll be able to share data that can connect me with other travelers who want to share a taxi, or I can get updates on traffic to and from the airport.”

Subscription solutions are also something that may be part of the future.

“It’s becoming more common in e-commerce. You subscribe to Netflix or Spotify, so people may want to subscribe for access to the lounge or fast track, perhaps even for a certain number of flights.”Massimo Pascotto

Today, you can check in almost anywhere, but you still need to print your baggage tags at a machine. You may not have to do this in the future. The lab is examining the possibility of a permanent electronic baggage tag that can be used repeatedly and is updated for each journey. Increasingly advanced technology will make things easier for users.

“We’re already seeing chatbots starting to appear,” Pascotto says. “Imagine an ‘assistant’ that you can communicate with in your own language. It recognizes­ your voice and your travel habits and listens to what you have to say before giving you the results in context.”

“We will have more opportunities for payment and identification – maybe Bitcoin or another digital currency. Even now, there are many people using bar codes and biometric recognition. In the future, your thumb may be all you need to check in, track your bags and pay on the plane if you buy something to eat,” he continues.

The complex infrastructure means that it may take some time before new technology can be put into use. Pascotto is also aware that we must not be blinded by the possibilities.

“The important thing is to use the information not only to sell, but to create a better experience for travelers,” he says.

Text: Øystein Tronstad

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