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The information system at American Airlines has become an integral part of the overall strategy to gain a competitive edge in the industry. The extensive use of computers began in the 1950s in payroll and inventory control and extended to customer service. In the early 1960s, American developed the widely known SABRE system (SABRE stands for Semi-Automated Business Research Environment). It is one of the most sophisticated passenger reservation system used by travel agents and customers.

Shortly after implementing SABRE, American also used the system for other tasks, such as controlling freight shipments, as well as dispatching and tracking flights. When the government deregulated the airline industry in 1978, the information system became an even more important tool for competing against the low-cost airlines whose labour costs were as much as 40 to 50 per cent lower. American Airlines’ strategy was to use the information technology to compete in a variety of ways. One application was to have as many aircrafts seats as possible filled without having many passengers “bumped” through overbooking. Another application was to obtain the proper balance between discount and regular fares. It was estimated that revenues could be increased dramatically by shifting only one per cent of discount fares to the full fare—clearly a competitive advantage in a market where price change occur daily and even hourly. Still another application of the information system was to find the most efficient way to fly in order to reduce fuel cost, which is the second largest expense. Some airplanes have sensors on board to monitor essential equipment; the operational information is sent to the ground station. Maintenance can then be planned effectively and performed more efficiently when the aircraft lands. Still another application of the computer was to determine the most profitable routes. The complexity of scheduling over 13,000 pilots and flight attendants on 1300 daily flights is horrendous. The high cost of overtime can put an airline at a competitive disadvantage.

Robert L Crandall, the former chairman and president of American Airlines, thinks that information systems are the key for success. He stated: “We have taken what was once a basic reservation system and built it into an integrated information system that drives our corporate strategy as much as it is driven by that strategy.” While American Airlines has been the industry leader in the use of information technology, competition developed. The 1992 program of the European Community (EC, now the European Union or EU) was designed to eliminate trade and many political barriers. The European airline industry also became deregulated than engaging in mergers, some airlines are now integrated into a network linking selected carriers together. An illustration of the cooperation among airlines involves the two computer reservation systems called Galileo and Amadeus. Thus, American Airlines—with a strategy of expanding in the European market, the largest market in the industrialized world—has ample competition. Recently, the five biggest US Airlines (Continental, Delta, Northeast, United Airlines, and now also American Airlines) developed a common website called (, which could also affect SABRE.

Technology that may have given once a competitive advantage to a company may, in time, become obsolete unless it adapts to new demands and develops new applications. Max Hopper, the architect of the SABRE system, suggests that old models are no longer sufficient. Those who can use the available tools and modify them will gain a competitive edge. The trend is away from stand-alone applications to platforms that facilitate new approaches to problem solving and decision making. SABRE is not only a reservation system, but also a system for inventory control, making flight plans, and scheduling flight crews. Other data-basses were added for car rentals, hotel reservations, and theatre shows. SABRE has become an electronic travel supermarket.


  1. Discuss the evolving use of information technology at American Airlines?
  2. Should American Airlines expand its position in Europe? What are the arguments for and against this expansion?


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