From ABC to i-pad part 1 Travel Before Technology

I’d like to take you back in a time machine to a time before most of the technology we use everyday even existed. The year was 1972, my first travel job as a rookie 18 year old fresh from school in a tiny, smoky office in Holland Park with an outside toilet
My desk had a typewriter, a heavy phone with a dial and an extension number, and we had a stack of carbon paper to type our invoices, a ruler to read the right line in the manuals, and a first generation calculator Texas Instruments calculator with normal AA batteries
The shelves were full of manuals The rail ABC containing timetables, the book of rail fares, The ABC World Airline Guide, Blue A-R and Red S-Z as far as I recall, these contained all the worlds flights, flight numbers , the date range and days of the week they they operated on. 1 being Monday, 2 Tuesday and so on. There were all the possible connecting flights in there as well. As you can imagine these were very thick manuals with tiny writing. The OAG (Official Airline Guide) contained a mileages and rules, apparently the two have since merged and are online. We also had a fares manual which was issued by British Airways and surprisingly thin. Thomas Cook rail guide for Europe and Worldwide (still published), another manual with telephone numbers for tour operators and hotel chains, Gazetteers with information about hotels and a normal telephone directory. These expensive manuals had to be replaced regularly as they were so quickly out of date.
So picture the scene, the phone would ring constantly and we all chain smoked at our desk. The first call of the day. I normally spoke to the secretary who would bark orders at us to have the tickets delivered that very afternoon. She would ask for a flight for her boss so I would go to the shelf, pick up the ABC, check the flight closest to the one she wanted, agree the times. Finnair produced a yearly airline phone directory and they still do. I would then phone the airline to book. Then I would go over to the ticket drawer pull out a ticket from stock, stamp it and then hand write it, pull out, one copy to keep in the drawer, another copy for the flight returns, and the outbound and return for the client. Sometimes we would have to construct the fare manually. If I made a mistake we would have to put two lines across the ticket write VOID and start again so I really had to concentrate. After I wrote an air ticket, I would have to put it on the returns which had to be accounted for and sent in at the end of the month with the top copies of the air tickets.
Although it was done manually, fare construction had simple rules, Y for economy or F for First class. The fare would be from A to B. If it was via C then we would have to add A to C and C to B and if it was within 5% it would be the fare plus 5% and shown in the construction box as M5 and so on up to 25%. If it was over 25% it had to be two one ways . If it included a Saturday night you could issue a YE1M which was a monthly excursion at a reduced fare. Mileage is now virtually redundant and only used to construct Star Alliance round the world fares
Rail tickets were even more primitive as I had to use carbon paper between the copies, top for the client, second copy with the weekly returns and last copy left in the book. We had to call through for reservations and write them out by hand on a reservation label that looks almost the same as they do now. Rail returns were a job that everyone hated so this was taken in turns
The client needed an invoice so more carbon paper was needed, either to hand write or type it. By this time the phone had rung many times and we were all on deadlines to get all the urgent tickets out by that afternoon
That was all quite straightforward but what happened if the client needed a hotel ? Well of course there was the phone but first we needed the number. If it wasn’t in a manual, we would ring directory enquiries to find the number and we kept address books for the ones we used most. Some hotels were sold on freesale, but the rooms went back to the hotels usually within a month of travel. Sometimes this would go wrong and they overbooked
If it wasn’t on freesale, we would have to telex. A telex was an extremely noisy and cumbersome piece of equipment which took up half a room. I reckon ours was a museum piece, it was probably Britain’s oldest. The way it worked was we had to type a message. After some delay going through the telephone exchange, it got typed out at the other end. Most hotels only processed telexes at the end of the day. Even large hotels would look at the diary to check availability and then type a message back to confirm. The whole process would take 2-3 days and up to a week if it was in another time zone. Telexes were eventually replaced by faxes and later by emails.
What about payment, we would either take cash or cheque and in the early days of credit cards we had to phone for authorisation and write a manual slip (more carbon paper)
My first job in retail was in a small shop in Shepherds Bush, also long since gone. Our clientele were mainly elderly, West Indian and Irish clients. In that shop we also did Venture coach tours from Shepherds Bush and National Express, more carbon paper and another manual and we also did a lot of ferry tickets to France and Ireland in the days before Eurostar and Ryanair
Selling a ferry involved having to put a cross on a chart and posting it to each ferry company at the end of the week, and manually writing out the ticket (more carbon paper) you can imagine how many of those went missing
In that shop we also did continental rail. We had a manual of course but issuing these tickets required a great deal of concentration. It seems ludicrous now that anyone would contemplate for instance travelling to southern Italy by train but this was still before low cost airlines. Each ticket had to be calculated from border to border, so if the ticket was from London to Rome this would be from London to Dover, Dover to Calais, Calais to the French Swiss border to Brig on the Swiss Italian border then from Domodossola on the Italian side to Rome, then we had to add them altogether and write all the border points on the ticket, then we had to call to book all the reservations.
Even in my early days in Thomas Cook in the late 80’s, they had done away with the typewriters on the desk but technology was still surprisingly primitive. The back office did business travel so they had proper airline green screen computers using an adapted BABS (British Airways Booking System) system for offices. In the storefront, we had a system called Prestel, which was on a small square box at eye level and had a screechy dial up system attached to a phone line. This was frustratingly slow and broke down frequently. We still used to hand write receipts and keep the bottom copy in the file with our notes. At least these were self carbonised.
By that that at least faxes were invented and we marvelled at being able to read a letter on awful waxy paper which faded to nothing within months, but it did speed up the process of booking hotels and being able to request, eventually these progressed to plain paper faxes which were much more efficient, easier to read and lasted longer.
All this might sound like hard work and it was but we had much more fun. The customers often wanted to sit down and chat and we would often make tea or coffee for them and we used to have reps that used to visit us from airlines and tour operators, often bearing gifts of chocolates and biscuits.


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