Throwback Thursday. An Anecdote from the Dawn of Online Travel

Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn't be done. Decide. Whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying... [Amelia Earhart]

So let me use “Throwback Thursday” to tell my view of a story from the dawn of the online travel era.

Allow me to give the necessary background. Many of my friends know bits and pieces.

Getting in Touch with Aviation IT

While this is so long ago, many in our industry have forgotten that SABRE was the first computerized global network that allowed us long before the World Wide Web to go into a travel agency somewhere and book flights, later hotels and other travel services on the other side of the world. When I entered the industry back in 1987 at American Airlines, it was pioneering days still. From an airline office in Frankfurt, soon later we had the first travel agencies using SABRE, aside the predominant “START system” in Germany. Though back then, travel agents became data interface managers. Learning to hack the system using a myriad of strange codes… Anyone recalls “Remarks-Messaging”? Queues, PNR Histories or AIRIMP?

From Airline to Travel IT

It was five years later, back in 1992 that as an established expert for “CRS” I joined German Amadeus-predecessor “START” as the Subject Matter Expert (SME) for System One and Sabre. At the time, Start as an early “Windows-like tool” for the German travel industry combined multiple systems like the Lufthansa CRS inventory system (something like Sabre), German Rail, Tour Operator TUI and several other travel product providers in a single system. At that time, the launch of Amadeus was imminent and following the takeover of most Sabre staff into the new Start Amadeus company structure, suddenly that deal failed. Surprise surprise.

"Do something about it when something "smells funny". Even if it's not on your job description, IT'S YOUR JOB." [Henna Inam]Together with a colleague I became responsible point of contact for airlines, managing, explaining and mitigating the “booking discrepancies” in a pre-online world, when bookings were transferred by teletype (a telex like, but automated system), not in real time. Only inside Amadeus, real time was “normal”. After some years, the internal network of which I wasn’t part of established a “Product Management Flight”, taking over my colleagues and my responsibilities… By the time I’ve become a member of the local Airline Sales Representatives Association (ASRA), though that suddenly was considered as an overstepping on my responsibilities. Something I found and find a statement of total bureaucratics’ thinking. Many years later, that was why Henna Inam’s statement resonated so well with me.

Travel Automation

“For those who agree or disagree, it is the exchange of ideas that broadens all of our knowledge” [Richard Eastman]In the meanwhile, I had build a global network, shared my knowledge not only with my airline sales friends, but also on CompuServe, an “online portal”, and there “GO:TRAVPRO”, a group of online travel professionals, where I met one of my mentors in my life, Richard Eastman.

So suddenly degraded from “Mr. Aviation” to “Helpdesk Executive”, I left Amadeus to start a new venture, establishing the first “GDS robotic tools” that automated recurring processes in those travel tools. GDS was the new name for Amadeus, Galileo, Sabre and Worldspan, defining themselves as “Global (Travel) Distribution Systems” and not mere (airline) Computer Reservation Systems…

I developed a tool myself that allowed Air Canada to maintain their “information pages” in the GDSs and use the same content for this new “Internet”-thingy. I gave user training to some travel agencies using “AQUA”, a software that automatically checked and improved travel agent bookings, checking for better prices, better connections, improving the response to customer needs. Then one of the moments in life happened.

Airline Sales & e-Commerce is under new ownership meanwhileOn research for the ASRA on my second “Airline Sales & e-Commerce”-presentation, a series covering GDS, Online Services like AOL or CompuServe, but also already the new “World Wide Web” (WWW), that ran annually for some 15 years, on the WWW which I still then accessed via a then new link by CompuServe, I stumbled across a single form field on a website that called itself the “Internet Travel Network”. It was really pioneering days, the Internet being something for student freaks… The form took a Sabre-command and returned the result, usually a flight availability. Or for the smarter of us also an air fares analysis result.

I discussed this with the late Louis Arnitz, a client of mine on the AQUA-business. And questioning that using a cache system like AQUA used on existing bookings, it should be possible to process a booking “online” through a web interface. In the following year, we developed what was to become Cytric, the first tool that allowed a commercial booking to be done on the Internet. During that process, there’s an anecdote worth a Throwback Thursday…

Online Travel Booking through the Web using Amadeus

Always listen to the experts! They tell you it is impossible and why you can not do it. When you know that: Go Ahead!In 1996, some four or six weeks before a milestone that changed our industry, we did by mistake do test bookings in the real-world system and booked up about a hundred Lufthansa flights with travelers called Test Tester… While that was far enough in the future and we could resolve the issue with Lufthansa, we were approached by Amadeus, that it was not acceptable to abuse their system like this and they would never, never ever approve of someone doing bookings on Amadeus through a web-page!! No f***ing way! Oh yes, we were in big trouble.

Those four to six weeks later though, we signed with Siemens to implement our tool into their new “Intranet” calling it the “Siemens Travel Net… Siemens, being a top technology partner of Amadeus I must add. Oops. So once in a sudden, Amadeus was “convinced” by Siemens to allow doing bookings through a webpage. And yes, I recall their “decision” that it’s exceptionally accepted for Siemens Intranet. But don’t we dare to make something like that available to end users!!

A mere year later, there was  the Amadeus Global Customer Conference in Barcelona. A close friend in Amadeus, who had helped us pulling that stunt with good ideas on my questions, asked me if I could give a quote they could use to show that they could “do Internet”, some weird development that suddenly hyped. Not that they had any API then, we had developed it all using “screen scraping”, “reading” standardized formats and specifying where the relevant information was, taking it to bits and pieces of typical machine code we then converted to human-interpretable information. So suddenly and to my great surprise, the VP of Amadeus holding the opening keynote quoted some “Juergen Barthel” of “FAO Travel” that we couldn’t have done it without Amadeus proactive help and support. Oh did we have a laugh after 😂

It’s sure noteworthy, that the tool became known as Cytric, with a spin-off known as e-Hotel, used globally and in the end acquired by … Amadeus.

Thinking outside the Box … and beyond

A friend, I came to trust, just recently called me a “visionary”, something I never call myself. When I learned the bells and whistles of “Economics” (Whole Sale & Foreign Sales), my instructor on business education was the boss of a large whole sale logistics center. He taught me to always think things through. What will be the repercussions of buying from the cheapest? Your product will loose in quality. But, he instilled that in me: There is always someone cheaper out there. And he also emphasized and taught me to leave the comfort zone of “we have always done it that way”. We must think outside the box and constantly strive to be better.

Later, I appreciated other role models and mentors, guiding me further down that road. Be it a Bob Crandall, Rita King or Colleen at American, a Hans Gesk and Jerry Kilkelly at Northwest, be it Heinz at Amadeus or Richard on GO:TRAVPRO, Louis Arnitz and Karin Froese in i:FAO, Sean and Alexandre in KDS,  and so many others then and since. In turn, I survived the pandemic for being much asked as advisor. Not for day-to-day stuff, but as a crisis manager. As most of them – most people I consider friends – are simply unable to leave their boxes. Stuck in theirs.

Now, I don’t see myself a visionary. That’d be “day-dreaming”. I focus on what’s possible and how to make it happen. That’s why I’m so uncomfortable to so many, why they do call me “visionary”, but also “heretic”, “unorthodox” or “inconvenient”. “Hell Yeah!”… And don’t I let a mistake stop me from doing what’s right!

Food for Thought…