It’s only taken a century to transform the idea of taking to the skies into a form of transportation that has shaped governments, economies and even people’s attitudes towards customer service. If the first part of our century of flight was defined by the mechanics of jetting across vast oceans at hundreds of miles per hour while enjoying a chateaubriand and some fine wine, then the last 25 years have been driven by technological advances.
Today, we can book our flights so easily that we forget how much time and effort was involved not too long ago. We also don’t interact with others as we once did prior to actually sitting in our seats. You don’t see much cash exchanged either. And the prices we pay, for as much we like to complain, have remained relatively steady, if not lower, once adjusting for inflation over a 25-year span.
If you’re reading this from the comfort of an airport lounge, we celebrate your travel savvy. It wasn’t long ago when the only way into a club or lounge was through an airline membership. But thanks to Priority Pass, the airport lounge experience has been redefined, much like the way we fly today.
In the not too distant past - which some of us fondly remember as “yesterday”
Spending a single day in the airport of 1992 would overwhelm most travelers with frustration. Imagine: no smartphone to check your flight status; paper-only boarding passes to carry around and sometimes lose; handwritten tickets while trying to try and catch a last-minute flight; and smoking on airplanes, which was still a thing back in 1992 (though slowly being phased out).
The profound changes in the way we travel today has been mostly driven by technology, rather than a change in social norms. Let’s take a 25-year flight back to 1992. If your flight was delayed, you’d have to get to a pay phone (most likely wait in a line) and use a calling card to get a hold of your travel agent. If you were lucky, you could be rebooked in less than 30 minutes!
If you needed a quiet place to make that call, you could go to the nearest airline club, but access depended on you being a member and your airline having one at that airport. In 1992, you could call the airline to check on your flight status and, once at the airport, you would become an instant screen watcher, searching for your flight among other stranded travelers. You’d make sure your flight was an “on-time” green amid those yellow “delayed” or red “cancelled” remarks. That is, if the FID (flight information display) screen was in color to begin with.
Now our smartphone instant notifications take care of all that. By the time you contact your airline about a delay these days, you might find out that you’ve been instantly rebooked by an automated system!
Not many ways to shop and book
In 1992, the majority of flight reservations were made by a travel agent. So unless you were a travel agent yourself, you didn’t have direct access to an airline’s booking system. Today, all airlines use an open global system called the Global Distribution System (GDS). One of the largest GDS companies, Amadeus, was actually launched in 1992, incorporating the reservations systems of multiple airlines and using the technology platform of SystemOne, created decades earlier by Eastern Air Lines. The oldest GDS system, Sabre, was actually developed in the 1960s and remains among the largest today.
Back then, when booking your flights you were best prepared with a printed schedule while working with the phone agent to get the flights and fares that sounded best. There was no airline website or online travel agent like Orbitz or Expedia, nor price comparison tools like Kayak.com to compare several airline schedules and fares side by side.
Today, no matter which booking tool you use, one of the largest GDS companies will likely be involved: Sabre, Amadeus and Travelport (itself comprised of former airline systems that became Galileo, Apollo and Worldspan).
Innovation and behavior bridge the digital divide
In the early 1990s, we experienced a ground shift that changed how we purchased air travel. The pioneer of ecommerce, Amazon.com, was launched in 1994, leading the way for airlines to begin marketing and selling flights on their own websites and bypassing the long tradition of using travel agents. In 1995, Delta Airlines shocked the travel agency world by imposing commission caps on flights sold. Travel agencies could no longer rely on the percentage of revenue generated from selling an airline’s flights.
Instead, they were given a flat fee depending on the type of booking. If you wonder why you typically pay a service fee to use a travel agent today, you can thank the commission caps imposed 25 years ago. Since then, many agencies have merged, folded or become specialized in a specific type of travel in order to justify charging a premium for their services. Worldwide, airlines still depend heavily on bookings made by travel agencies, whether they’re online or physical agencies. For all the technology meant to make airline travel simpler, there’s plenty to confuse flyers enough to have them lean on a travel agent to sort things out. Travel agents are still quite helpful should something go wrong with your journey.
In 1992, SITA introduced the first air-to-ground telephony that allowed passengers to make calls while in the air. While many flyers scowl at the thought of hearing conversations from mobile phone users at 35,000 feet, they often forget that the ability existed 25 years ago. However, there was barely a hint of opposition at the time, probably due to the high cost of the call.
New innovations such as self-service airport kiosks have minimized the person-to-person contact between airlines and passengers, at least during the check-in stage. We can print our boarding passes at home or carry them digitally in our smartphones or smartwatches, then go to a kiosk to tag our bags and drop them off. The first conversation you have with an airline representative today might not be at the ticket counter, but a flight attendant taking your drink order.
Airport lounges provide an interesting contrast. The ground-breaking idea that Priority Pass forged 25 years ago that lounge access could be provided at airports around the world, regardless of a passenger’s class of service or airline, is perhaps one of the last places where the old and new converge harmoniously. You can enjoy exclusivity and comfort while be attended to by lounge staff, and choose to interact with fellow passengers in a business or social setting. You can take advantage of advanced technology in a lounge and to connect with the virtual world, or indulge in the time-honored tradition of simple relaxation.
Will that be paper or plastic … or your thumb?
Paying for air travel has evolved dramatically in 25 years. For airline tickets, you used to pay at the airport check-in counter using cash, a check or a credit card. Or, if you were progressive, you’d give your credit card number over the phone. At the airport, magnetic card readers were becoming common in 1992, but you often found agents diligently typing your credit card number directly into the computer system, a not-so-fun exercise in travel stress if you found yourself pressed for time. It might have looked something like this. And then there was the last resort for accepting payment: the old credit card devices that would imprint your card and return a carbon copy of your sales slip to you.
It’s quite seamless how today’s transactions are all carried out online with a VISA, Discover, American Express, Mastercard or even PayPal—all stored for you to simply click or swipe your finger to book on a screen. Yet for all the technology and speed we enjoy today, when computers crash—everything stops. Try finding an agent today who knows how to hand-write a ticket, or manually calculate a fare, or use a manual boarding chart, or calculate weight and balance numbers at the gate. In 1992, it was likely you could still get a plane out of the gate during a computer outage. Today, not so much, but at least we can pay from our smartphones and not even have to carry a physical credit card.
As we celebrate 25 years of travel innovation, our next article takes a look back at how air travel has evolved over the last quarter century.