How have computers transformed commercial flight? Think about the last time you purchased an airplane ticket. More than likely, you bought that ticket online—but that’s just one of the many ways computers have become crucial tools to the airline industry. They are used to book tickets, plan flights, schedule aircraft and crew, oversee maintenance, set fares, and even help fly the very planes we all travel in. 

In the late 1950s, American Airlines pioneered the use of a computer reservation system, and in 1963 American installed its Semi-Automated Business Environment, or SABRE. Other airlines followed American's lead and developed their own computer reservation systems.  

Airline workers in the mid-20th century. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Today, using the Internet, passengers can search to find the best fare or flight, choose seats, make reservations, pay for the ticket, and get electronic receipts and boarding passes. Computer reservation systems have led to code sharing agreements between airlines that allow travelers to fly on more than one carrier on a single ticket. Code sharing increases and optimizes the flow of passengers through an airline's network. A major carrier may have code sharing agreements with regional, commuter, and foreign airlines. 

Apart from managing ticketing, computers provide benefits to the aircraft themselves. For instance, computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacture (CAD/CAM) have greatly reduced the cost of producing aircraft. Computers produce accurate drawings and can alert designers to possible conflicts before a design is produced. They can also manufacture parts more precisely and faster than humans. Parts for the 747-400 were made by CAD/CAM. The Boeing 777 was the first airliner completely designed on computer. 

A model of the Boeing 777, the first airliner completely designed on a computer, with Wind Tunnel technician Danny Ompoc. Image courtesy of NASA.

To manage the complex technology of modern airliners, flight crews rely on computers to fly aircraft and to monitor aircraft systems. The first autopilots were used on airliners in the mid-1930s. In the late 1950s, electronic computers became small enough to be used aboard aircraft. Sophisticated digital computers can now fly aircraft in virtually any situation, while ensuring that all systems are functioning properly. 

Digital technology has enhanced safety and efficiency and reduced the flight crew's workload. Invented by NASA in the 1970s and first used in fighter aircraft, “fly-by-wire" technology was a direct spin-off from the space program, which used fly-by-wire systems to maneuver the Apollo lunar module. In 1972, NASA research pilot Gary Krier became the first to fly a digital fly-by-wire aircraft when he piloted NASA's highly modified F-8C Crusader jet fighter. 

NASA research pilot Gary Krier, who was the first to fly a digital fly-by-wire aircraft. Image courtesy of NASA.

"Fly-by-wire" technology translates the pilot's actions into electronic signals, which computers use to manipulate flight controls. The computers constantly monitor pilot input and prevent the aircraft from exceeding its flight envelope, thereby increasing safety. And because fly-by-wire replaces heavy, complex mechanical linkages with lighter electrical wires, it is more efficient. 

Digital fly-by-wire control systems and computerized "glass cockpit" displays have made airliners more reliable, efficient, and safe. In a "glass cockpit," digital electronic displays replace conventional analog instruments. This technology provides flight crews with far better instrumentation and information than ever before.  

A view of the digital fly-by-wire system. Image courtesy of NASA.

From ticket reservations to aircraft design and manufacture, computers have helped airline operations become more efficient and flexible. The rise of personal computers and the Internet has given passengers complete control over booking their own flights and seat selections. The complex and fluid airfare system that computers have made possible enables savvy travelers to find low fares on many routes, and the aircraft that get them to and from their destinations are safer and more efficient.  

Related Topics Aviation Commercial aviation Technology and Engineering
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