"Your attention please, announcing the departure of North Central Airlines Flight 765, SUPER NORTHLINER SERVICE, to Minneapolis/St. Paul. All aboard please”.
I write this tale for all those folks who once had Herman; the “Blue Goose” embossed on their paychecks and of course other interested parties. Who of the numerous speculating ole timers, back in the mid 1960s would have projected that North Central Airlines, some 20 years later would be operating 150+ aircraft carrying over 15 million passengers and that Herman would soon thereafter simply disappear from the skies. A contributor to that extraordinary period of growth was the emerging world of computers. My goal is to convey the gestation, life and times of the NC (North Central) Airlines computer system known as ESCORT provided in mind numbing detail.
Explained will be the logic that created ESCORT, its conception and attendant problems/issues overcome to permit its birth as a NC Passenger Reservations System. Quickly following its birth, ESCORT additions were invented that cut across all aspects of customer services, station and flight operations. Soon thereafter, NC created SCEPTRE, the corporate maintenance, inventory and administrative system. Together these two systems gave North Central and follow on Republic, a ‘second-to-none-leading-edge-full-function’ computerized airline system. In the hands of Northwest Airlines, the egocentric demise of ESCORT followed - "The Locust Ate The Grain".
This is a non-fiction dissertation. Literary and English composition ‘experts’ will likely snicker while reading this work, but let such folks recall “it’s not the Platitude, it’s the Attitude”! While I strive for proper use of our American language, I often fail. Historians often claim 50 years must lapse before historical events are recorded. I come somewhat close to that requirement.
Should I not write this history, it’s quite likely it would be lost? My qualifications are “I was there hands on”; from its birth as a novice programmer and later its manager, making good use of my earlier station agent education. Born the year of two ‘air’ events; Howard Hughes had “set a trans-continental record of 7 hrs 28 min and 25 sec” and Amelia Earhart “vanished”. I am a child of the ‘airline’ biz.
Following some farming and Army engineer years I had found my calling. Yet a youngster, my NC station agent (SA) career began in 1959 at ATY (Watertown, SD). Next was some 10 years working in 11 stations, nine as a relief agent, most all spent in small to medium (Class C & B) sized NC Stations.
Daily SA duties included most all facets of airport activities from reservation sales, ticket preparation, passenger check-in processing, air cargo, communications (land & air), ramp services, along with flight arrivals and departures rain, snow or shine. Basically the same duties performed by station agents and passenger service agents in the big Class A Stations except for ramp congestion.
Almost anything that could happen to an SA during these years ‘did-happen’ and I found myself too often, in the ‘tangle’! Duties and procedures were well documented in several manuals. I had a strong grasp of those manuals, including their first page (to wit); “Nothing herein is a substitute for good common sense”.
This experience gave me a good sense of NC operations and an appreciation of the timely needs of NC agents. This then, was my basic training for later developing new ESCORT programs. My “Life and Times as an NC Station Agent 1959 to 1968” was published in the Convair Kid’s (Peder’s) 2009 blog as well as here on hermantheduck.org.
In 1967 yet another GO memo appeared on the Bulletin Board; a solicitation for agents interested in a GO (Minneapolis MN General Office) position. I responded and was selected. In February 1968, I reluctantly vacated my Muskegon, MI station agent position and reported to MSP DP (Data Processing) Manager Bill Wolf to become one of the 3 initial ESCORT programmers. Later, I was named its manager.
Now in 2009, I am one of the few remaining souls, along with my initial manager, Bill Wolf, supervisor Fred Voth, Jack Brown (fellow NC Agent and ESCORT guru), IBM’er John Southam (a Steeler fan) and Walt Thompson (computer systems guru). All enabled the birth of ESCORT, most all throughout its 15 years of growth. I departed Republic Airlines in 1983, a couple years before 1986 when ESCORT was trashed.
This non-fiction work will have omissions and like all endeavors, events are recorded as they appear in the mind of the writer years after their ‘doings’! Most are taken from memory, a few on hand documents and ‘help’ from former associates. Several former NC bosses, close NC associates and long time IBM NC account personnel were solicited to review, correct and comment and ‘true to form’ they did. I welcome any constructive disagreements, additions or comments. Should any individual be infringed upon, and it not a fact, it’s a regretted error. These ‘utterings’ and responsibility for such are mine (SkipPowell@aol.com).
North Central Leadership Those that took the high-dollar risk that resulted in ESCORT
Hal N. Carr (1921-2008-RIP) at 27 years of age joined the Wisconsin Central Airlines payroll in 1947. He was named Executive VP prior to the first Wisconsin (Whiskey) Central scheduled flight February 24, 1948, the aircraft already adorned with Herman ‘the duck’. By age 33 he was President, later CEO and COB ‘the’ head guy.
Bernard “Bud” Sweet (1923-2006-RIP) was Mr. Carr’s companion executive from the time he “joined-up’ as the Wisconsin Central Airlines accountant in 1948. In 1969 Bud was named President and later the CEO.
Our leaders for 40+ years, by 1984 both were retired NC/RC officers.
Daniel F. May, long time NC/RC Executive was named President in 1980, CEO 1981 & CEO/COB 1984.
North Central Airlines Data Processing, Pre-ESCORT:
ESCORT was not the first DP (Data Processing) system adventure by NC, nor was it ever the only one. It cannot be doubted that management understood the value of DP to its growing business.
It’s a reasonable conclusion that NC Executives fully knew that 1958 revenues had increased 64% and expenses 65% over the preceding 2 years not a good trend! It was a period of rapid growth with much more on the horizon. New route approvals were expected, both west and east of the core system, doubling total route miles. Also, larger and more aircraft were on the horizon. We knew from experience, management was extremely ‘tight-fisted’ regarding expenses while always receptive to improved business operations. Ergo, emerging electronic data processing capabilities were deemed a reasonable ‘helper’.
1953- IBM Accounting Machines had been in use several years to produce payroll, flight load data, and ticket data along with general accounting and ledger reports. Though elementary to later technology, those systems were considered the ‘brains’ of the airline. Raw data inputs were coded on special forms and keypunched into Hollerith (known as IBM) cards. The cards were sequence sorted and fed into accounting machines to produce ‘paper’ reports. Twenty-four hours were required to process the semi-monthly payroll and check printing.
1961- IBM 1401 System having greater and quicker capabilities replaced most accounting machines. This system upgrade was required to meet the growing volume of passengers and management needs. Payroll processing was reduced to 3 from 24 hours. By 1963 DTT (Detroit), CHI (Chicago) & MSP (Minneapolis/St Paul) maintenance bases were linked together; collecting and distributing aircraft overhaul and line maintenance planning along with associated manpower needs. This netted a 30 - 35% reduction in a/c phase overhaul and periodic check times. By 1962, the NC a/c fleet had grown to 18 Convairs and 29 (high total 32) DC-3s. The majority of raw data inputs continued to be ‘paper’ inputs via keypunched cards and ‘paper’ outputs. By 1962, revenues had increased 107% and expenses 96% - a nice change from expenses exceeding revenues 3 years earlier in 1958.
1963- Collins Radio Electronic switching new ARINC System was connected to NC, preceded only by Pan American and American Airlines. This enabled ‘instant’ electronic exchange of reservation messages with other airlines - at 100 words per minute. I think I recall during this period; “some 60% of NC passenger travel included flights on Other Airlines.” Later added were air freight, administrative, and flight ops messaging, plus some international carrier messages.
1964- Electric ticketing machines were installed at some major ticket counters. Ticket preparation time was reduced by electronic printing of itinerary, fares, taxes, form of payment, and issuing information.
1966- Eastern Airline shared UNIVAC terminals were installed in the MKE (Milwaukee) located CRO (Central Reservation Office) and CRC (Central Reservation-Seat Control), then handling 70% of NC reservations. These keyboard (no visual display) terminals, could process 100,000 hourly transactions. The result was; ‘instant’ flight schedule and accurate seat availability.
UNIVAC terminals did not maintain passenger itineraries. They did maintain seat availability for each NC flight, the status readily available to sales agents. Passenger itineraries; names, phone numbers, and flights for each reservation were hand-written by agents on 3x5 paper cards. Completed Res Cards would be transported via an office conveyor system for central ‘tub-filing’.
Change to an existing reservation required the sales agent to contact the ‘tub-file’ agent, specifying information to find the 3x5 RES card. Once found, it was sent to the sales agent via the conveyor for updating. At flight time, the RES Cards provided boarding data to flight check-in agents. In 1966, CRO agents processed 4.7 million transactions, producing 913,000 passengers. The process was laborious.
1966- IBM 360/40, a new generation of computers and associated data devices, replaced the IBM 1401. Most raw data inputs continued to be ‘paper’ driven via punch cards producing ‘paper’ reports. Duane Pedlar was the Manager of DP Operations, and Dave Olson was his Operations Supervisor. The IBM 360/40 system included; 2311 disk data storage drives, two 2415 tape drives (one, for data input, the other data-output), one card reader/card punch device, and one high speed forms printer. At the end of each 8 hour work day, everything in the computer room, including lights, were turned off until the next work day. From 1961 to 1966, passenger volume increased 87%.
1966- A new General Office complex. A 470,000 sq ft, $15 million dollar Headquarters was announced with a July 1967 construction start date. It was to be located on 102 acres of farm land on the south side of the MSP airport where Airline Drive and Interstate 494 intersect. Projected completion date of the Maintenance Operation Center was December 1968 and the GO by March 1969. All were fully occupied by 1969 at a finalized cost of $17 million.
1967- Flight Information Screens, NC was first airline to install display screens in the MSP gate and ticket counter areas. Flight info screens was previously available in GRB (Green Bay), MKE, CHI and DTT.
Computer Services Department Manager was Bill Wolf. After a 5 year Navy tour, he began his NC career in 1955 as a machine operator. Two years later he was selected by Mr. Sweet to fill the new position of Machine Accounting Department Supervisor. As demands and responsibilities grew, he became the Data Processing Manager, then later re-designated as the Computer Services Manager. His worthy assistant, Norm Renner (RIP), ‘assumed command’ in 1970 when greener pastures beckoned Bill to Flying Tigers (later Fed-EX), then others.
Aircraft A measure of North Central rapid growth:
DC-3: The first DC-3 service began in 1950. The first 6 a/c were purchased from TWA. The last DC-3 scheduled flight was in 1969, a round trip MSP to PIR. Seating capacity was 26, except two former Navy a/c with 28 seats. By 1958, the DC-3 fleet totaled 32. (160 MPH, range 900 miles).
Ole 728, after flying some 260+ million passenger miles and 83+ thousand miles, made its last scheduled service flight in 1965. Refitted as a NC corporate plane, it was later donated to Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum. There it ‘rested’ - outside, and there its appearance became sadly deplorable. Resurrected by NW faithful and moved indoors; it now has the ‘physical’ appearance colors of NW (DL already has a refitted DC-3, Hmmm.
I rode Ole 728 over to South Dakota on a hot summer thunder-booming night. The sky was filled with jagged lighting bolts caressing 728’s wing tips. From my firmly buckled-in passenger seat, Ole 728 seemed to be flying a ‘zig-zag’ heading. The cabin was lightning illuminated and rocking on all four axis. The heads of most of the dozen or so passengers were bent, tending to the purpose of those little ‘back-of-the-seat’ bags. The cabin was summer day warm; noses were sniffing and more heads were ‘bent’. The cockpit door swung open, a somewhat pale blue-clad ‘Stew’ appeared. She managed to stabilize herself with a death hold on the overhead bag racks to make an announcement, “Thought you would be interested to know, this airplane has flown more hours then any other!”! Her timing?? Or were Pilot’s getting their “chuckles”?? Nah.
Convair (CV340-580): The first of five Convairs acquired from Continental Airlines began service in 1959 (44 PSGR seats, 284 MPH, range 2,000+ miles). Later upgraded to CV440’s and finally converted to Prop-jet CV580s in 1967, with increased seats (50), speed, range and cargo capacities. Three years later the prop-jet fleet totaled 34. By 1978 its number was reduced to 23, as pure-jet service increased.
Jets: The first DC9-30 service began in 1967 with a fleet of 5 a/c, each with 100 PSGR seats. By 1970 fleet total was 15. By 1978 the pure-jet fleet was 29 DC9-30s and 7 DC9-50’s.
Available a/c Passenger Seats totaled 870 in 1958, increasing 20 years later to 4,900+ seats.
Mergers: North Central (NC) became Republic Airlines (RC) in 1979 concurrent with the Southern Airways (SO) merger. Hughes Air West (RW) was merged into RC in 1981.
ESCORT - The Beginnings:
1969- ESCORT was announced by President Bud Sweet, e.g.; an agreement with IBM to install an $8 million dollar computer reservations, message switching and flight information system. To be operational by 1970, “This new electronic system will be a vitally important part of North Central’s expansion program”.
Why computerize the business (agent) end of North Central Airlines? If you worked at NC you understood CEO Hal Carr and President Bernard Sweet were not only prudent about running a smooth, high a/c utilization airline, but perhaps even more so, ”tight-fisted” expense. Remember the bottom line number on our 7th and 21st monthly paychecks? The 'Why' may be found within the following:
number of employees
passengers enplaned per employee
(1): First NC million passenger year, the first among Local Service Carriers. CV 340s added to schedule.
(2): Eight CV 580s, three DC9-30s and just a couple DC-3s on the NC flight schedule.
(3): ESCORT activated in 1970. Last DC-3 off the schedule in 1969
(4): Last NC only year, a/c totaled; 36 DC-9s & 23 CV 580s serving 103 cities in 20 States & Canada.
(5): RC birthed with SO added 1979, RW added 1980. 1982 total a/c; 132 DC9s, 15 727s,& 15 CV 580s.
(6): a/c totaled 160; MD80s, DC9s, 727s, & CV 580s.
NOTE: The 1967 pre-ESCORT year, passengers enplaned per employee averaged 893.
The 1973 post-ESCORT year, passengers enplaned per employee exceeded 1,300.
CONJECTURE: Absent ESCORT, by 1973 about 4,700 employees would be needed??
. This is not a “mis-understatement”.
COMPARE the last NC only year 1978 to the following year(s) decline of PSGRs per employee!
‘THE FUTURE AIN’T WHAT IT USTA BE-Yogi’
1967- NC celebrated its 20th anniversary: Comparing 1964 to 1967, passengers increased 73% while the number of employees rose 29%. Escalation was expected as new routes, cities and larger jet a/c became reality and it did. By 1978, the last NC only year, passengers increased by 194%, employees 69% compared to 1967 stats. Management’s look into the future was indeed shrewd.
1967- The ESCORT Conception: On June 5th, 1967 VP Dan May established a working group to research, analyze and produce recommendations relative to two principal issues;
#1 Evaluate an IBM proposed Computer Reservation/Communications system and
#2 Further consolidation of Reservations into the Central Reservation Office (CRO) program.
The Working Group included: N E “Norm” Taylor (Chairman), L. A. “Leo” Finley, J. K. “John” McElroy and F. C. “Fred” Voth. Their Steering Committee were Department Heads; Data Processing Manager W. E. “Bill” Wolf (Chairman), Traffic Administration Manager M. J. “Marv” Freund, Tele-Communications Manager S. N. “Stu” McLeod, and Treasury Manager J. F. “Jim” Nixon. Their resulting Evaluation Report was published to NC Executives December 21, 1967.
CRO Proposal (summarized): Cities producing 3000+ reservations should be consolidated into CROs, except for such locations where telephone costs were prohibitive. NOTE: later when AT&T relaxed costs, more NC cities reservation functions were moved to CRO’s. Additionally, management equipment should be acquired that measures length of call time and numbers of calls handled by each res. agent to gauge productivity and proper staffing levels.
CRO cost projections varied with different considerations against ‘expected’ passenger boarding. Their (summarized) numbers reflect an almost $24 million saving within CRO’s while passenger boarding would increase by 10+ million (a close estimate, actual was 6.9 mil) using the recommended Computer Reservations System. In 1967, 60% of reservations were being booked within CRO’s. The report recommended a number of smaller locations to continue handling ‘their own’ reservations and to continue use of existing teletype terminals to interface with the new Computer Reservations System.
The IBM Programmed Airline Reservations System (PARS) proposal was recommended, along with various options that were later modified. The number of new agent terminals was projected for CRO’s, ATO’s (Airport Ticket Offices), stations and other NC locations. Also recommended were some 32 modifications to the IBM system to meet NC requirements for which 18+ man-years of programming work was needed.
Staffing recommendations for the new computer system were also made. Manpower was required to complete the “NC requirement’, install the system and to handle ‘pop-up’ issues. Staffing was to begin January 1, 1968 with 3 programmers who started February 1st. The staff was projected to grow to a total of 12, and it did, comprised mostly of former NC field agents.
Their December, 1967 recommendation noted, “that as of yet”, no other airline was using the IBM System, tho several were in pre-production mode. Also, that if a May 1970 NC ‘in-use’ date was to be achieved, an immediate ‘beginning’ was required (and it was ‘in-use’ March 1970, 2+ months early).
Completing the evaluation report was a sizable task requiring input from many corporate folks. Their conclusions were proved sound by department heads and executive management. Their evaluation was accepted and detail planning was put in motion. The evaluation report consisted of recommended ‘proposals’. Adjustments were made as detailed planning produced greater knowledge; some were mentioned 2 years later in Mr. Sweet’s announcement.
NOTE: The ‘number crunching’ programs developed to determine ‘costing and requirements’ for the evaluation report were retained in use for several years, modified to reflect ever changing issues. Finally, they were ‘retired’, earlier costing projections were proved “valid and understated”.
June 1969- NC President ‘Bud’ Sweet formally announced ESCORT: The system would be operational by March 1970, using a pair of IBM’s largest 360/65 computer systems. Each Station would have at least one 1977 keyboard/hardcopy terminal and a Sanders stand alone CRT. Visual displays (CRT’s) will be installed in CROs, plus terminals in Flight Control, Administrative Offices, and the GO Telecommunications Center. A total of 425 new agent sets will be installed, all linked to ESCORT by a new data network. NOTE: this was a change from the Working Groups proposals in that, no teletype units would be retained all NC locations would have standard ESCORT agent terminals.
NOTE: Numbers of agent terminals increased, beginning soon after ‘cut-over’ to follow the dynamic growth of NC business. Some 700 terminals were in use by 1977, including those installed at Corporate Accounts, and travel agencies. A CRT was even installed in the MKE gate area allowing customers to access worldwide weather. By 1981 with Southern Airways and Hughes Airwest added, there were 5,000+ ESCORT terminals.
NOTE: Processing and storage capacity of the IBM 360/65s was subsequently increased several times, followed by larger/faster computers and data storage devices. Increases met the growing numbers of passengers, flight departures and additional agent functions like; flight times, weather, dispatch systems, ticketing, FMR, fuel management, weight/balance, MGL, seat selection, plus other systems.
NOTE: ESCORT growth is illustrated by its agent use. ESCORT began with an “Online Database” consisting of 18 spindles of IBM 2314 Disk Storage, each with a maximum storage capacity of just under 30 million bytes, a total of over 500 million bytes of data storage. Additional storage was used for Test Systems, Program Libraries, Load Libraries and other DP functions. Data storage size was increased and upgraded to faster data retrieval as new technology became available along with increasing passengers.
In 1972, monthly messages processed were 14.1 million, almost 50% over the previous year. Passengers increased 13.9% over the same period. By 1981, ESCORT was processing 2+million transactions daily, 24/7 ‘up-time’ was 99.7%, improved from 97+% its first operational year. The majority of ‘down-time’ was required for periodic maintenance and data base updates, e.g.; hardware maintenance, schedule changes and more. A number of scheduled outages for routine events were later eliminated; they were done during ‘up-time’.
Mr. Sweet said, ” Responses to agent queries will be within 3-seconds. ESCORT will be accessible to all NC agents. All administrative and operational messaging will be via the new network. Data capacity of the IBM 360/65 computers will exceed one billion characters.”
NOTE: After ESCORT ‘cut-over’, the predicted agent response time proved accurate. Periodic weekly measurements indicated that 90% of agent queries were satisfied within 1-second.
The VP of Traffic and Sales, Dave Moran added (too wit) that “Using visual screens at reservations and passenger service locations, they would have immediate accurate access to flight seat availability, departure/arrival times, and flight progress (FLIFO) information for the 1300 daily NC departures and arrivals. Agents will also have access to over 200 connecting flights to other prime market airlines and their seat availability status”.
NOTE: Dave’s prediction was short: Following ESCORT activation ‘all’ scheduled domestic airline flights were added, along with select international carriers, to include maintaining their up-to-date seat availability status. The old monthly OAG and semi-monthly QRE airline flight schedules books were obsoleted, there content was now automatically (with ‘back-room’ labor preparation) ESCORT loaded from Reuben H. Donnelley SCIP (schedules) tapes. Agents could now request flights between most all USofA cities and obtain a display of NC/OA (other airline) flights across up to two connection points, determine seat availability, book the flights and create a complete PNR (passenger record) - within seconds.
The VP and Treasurer, Dan May, added (too wit) “ESCORT will provide significant operating economies, which will increase as business volume grows. The system will also be used to produce financial maintenance and inventory information”.
NOTE: Dan hit the nail on its head. Soon ESCORT was feeding Flight Times, FMR and other data, as it happened, electronically into Maintenance and Administrative programming systems, later directly into SCEPTRE. The average number of passengers, per employee improved 73% between 1967 and 1978,
CONSIDER; those 1970 ‘biggie’ IBM computers had less processing horsepower than my current six year old desktop PC - having worldwide access. ESCORT was truly a processing race horse, all processing completed within the computers memory, one transaction at a time. My PC has 1.5 million bytes of memory; ESCORT when first installed had ¼ meg (250,000) bytes, later upgraded to ½ meg.
OFFICIAL: The ESCORT acronym was extracted from “Electronic System, Combining Operations, Reservations, & Telecommunications”. The ESCORT acronym meaning has been debated, the C and T construed at times to be Communications and Training. Fred Voth conjured ESCORT, winning an internal contest and earning a Wisconsin Dells trip, alas with no time off.
Another acronym PARS, Programmed Airline Reservations System.
THE ORIGINS of PARS
ESCORT was to be ‘birthed’ from PARS, developed by IBM. When NC made its decision; very few airlines had installed PARS, but none were yet operational. IBM had developed PARS using many concepts of the then (AA) American SABRE-1 system. Other major airlines were attempting alternative systems such as Burroughs, Sperry (UNIVAC) and maybe one other. Turmoil between available vendors was an added factor leading to the NC decision. By the mid-1980’s, there were 9 airlines using PARS, 12 using its International brother IPARS and 8 using the UNIVAC system. Today, 2008, the majority of the travel systems remain PARS based.
ESCORT was an early, but not the first USofA airline to acquire PARS. At the time (December 1967) recommended by the NC Study Group, no airline was yet operational with PARS. Forerunners were Pan-American (PA), Eastern (EA), Delta (DL), Continental (CO) and (with a bare bones system) Mohawk (MOs became operational before NC). About the same time as NC, Braniff (BN) and Allegheny (AL) systems were installed.
It was later in 1971, United (UA) having aborted its UNIVAC (UNISYS) direction, installed their version of the PARS based EA system. Trans World (TW) followed, having aborted their Burroughs direction, installing their version of the EA System which they named PARS. AA upgraded SABRE-1 in 1972 with their version of PARS, called SABRE-2. In the USofA, only Northwest (NW) eventually installed and remained with UNIVAC (UNISYS), also used by a few (7) foreign airlines.
Later, several local service carriers; Piedmont (PI), Trans Texas (TT), Lake Central (LC), Ozark (OZ), Southern (SO), Air West (AW), Bonanza (BL), Pacific (PC) [these last 3 became Hughes Air West (RW)] were ‘hosted’ within mostly CO and EA PARS based systems.
While not the very first, certainly NC with its ESCORT was far from the last airline to automate their passenger reservations. NC was ‘the’ first airline to leap to combining other functions into its reservations system, such as; message-switching, flight information, aviation weather queries, and more, developing a fuller airline oriented system, versus reservations only. Also, NC was the very first airline to have at least one CRT in each of its locations, soon after its initial activation. No doubt NC birthed a computer pioneering spirit. These were ‘horn-blowing’ huge firsts!
NOTE: The message-switching definition is the ability for any Agent Set to originate and deliver operational or administrative messages to any other NC printer. NC Agents could also communicate with any entity attached to ARINC or SITA networks in effect, world wide. Also, agents could transfer CRT displayed data to printers located anywhere on the NC network.
copyright 2009 by Coston E. "Skip" Powell
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