For the first few decades of commercial air travel, central airline staff booked passengers on to a plane by writing their details on a card and placing it in a wooden box. Last-minute cancellations were a challenge, and airlines would lose money if aircraft flew with empty seats. Arriving in 1965 at the UK’s international flag carrier BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways), Peter Hermon, who has died aged 93, computerised not only its reservations system, but the scheduling of aircraft departures, route planning, rostering of crew, and all the engineering and financial services needed to keep the business running. The global standards in place today still owe a debt to his achievement as millions of people casually tap their phones to book a flight to Seattle or Singapore.
National airlines in the US had begun to automate their ticketing in the 1950s, but international travel was a much more complicated problem. Hermon persuaded the BOAC board to buy two IBM 360 computers at a cost of more than £3m (about £50m today). “I had a lot of prestige and power,” Hermon said in an interview for the Leo Computers Society in 2017, “and I could really do anything I liked.” The following year the company invested a further £33m, training up to 300 programmers to develop a suite of programs for a network called Boadicea. Based from 1968 in Boadicea House at London Heathrow airport, the system was connected to terminals in offices from the US to Asia.
Under Hermon’s leadership, BOAC collaborated with IBM to develop the real-time International Programmed Airline Reservation System (Ipars) on its machines at Heathrow. Hermon went on to sell software and training to dozens of other airlines, including KLM, Japan Airlines and Qantas, so profitably that the receipts eventually covered the investment BOAC had made in computers. The company received Queen’s awards for both technological innovation and export as a result.
In 1972 Hermon was promoted to head the management services division, with a seat on the BOAC board. Later, as a member of the British Airways board, set up in 1971 by the then secretary of state for trade and industry, John Davies, Hermon played a key role in reuniting BOAC and its European offshoot, BEA. He wrote the plan for the merger, then led the integration of the two corporations’ management systems for the newly named British Airways, launched in 1976. He was a board member of British Airways from 1976 until he left the company in 1983, finishing his time there as managing director of the European division.
Hermon impressed upon his team the need to go and talk to the staff who would actually be selling tickets to customers before designing the system. “The most important thing isn’t technology,” he told me in 2000, “it’s finding out what the requirements are. You’ve got to crawl around the organisation at the bottom to make sure you get all the detail – because if it isn’t in there, it won’t work. These days you adapt the business to the computer – in those days we adapted the computer to the business.”
Hermon started with the J Lyons catering company, whose LEO computer ran the first routine business application
It was a philosophy he had acquired in his first computing job, with Leo Computers Ltd. The catering company J Lyons & Co had set up its subsidiary Leo Computers in 1954, three years after the Lyons Electronic Office – Leo – became the first computer in the world to run a routine business application. Hermon joined a year later as a recent mathematics graduate with no computing experience. Initially tasked with programming the payroll for the Ford motor corporation, within a year he was overseeing the design of a highly complicated invoicing application for Imperial Tobacco on the second-generation Leo II.
Next assigned on an even more complex contract for the rubber company Dunlop – an integrated sales accounting system on the transistorised Leo III involving 20,000 products and hundreds of outlets – he accepted an offer to move from Leo to Dunlop. There he headed the implementation of worldwide computer systems for the firm from 1959 to 1965, leaving Dunlop for BOAC.
Born in Oxford, Peter was the son of Beatrice (nee Poulter), a dressmaker, and Arthur Hermon, an engineer with Morris Motors. The family moved to Nottingham when Arthur was promoted to be a technical rep for Morris, and Peter was educated at Nottingham high school. He won a state scholarship and an open scholarship to study mathematics at St John’s College, Oxford, taking up his place in 1950 after two years of national service with the Royal Artillery that included postings to Egypt and Libya. He graduated in 1953 with first-class honours.
After an unhappy year spent teaching maths at Leeds grammar school, in 1955 Hermon joined Leo Computers. Reflecting, in 2017, on that time, he said: “It was, looking back, like a dream; I thoroughly enjoyed life there. The people were wonderful … supervision was something you sought rather than something that was imposed.”
After Dunlop, BOAC and British Airways, he held senior posts with the US company Tandem Computers, with Lloyds of London and with Harris Queensway before retiring from full-time work in 1989. Thereafter he undertook occasional consultancy for firms including Saatchi & Saatchi, Argos and Crédit Lyonnais.
In his spare time he was an enthusiastic hill walker. Having rambled on Kinder Scout in his youth, he spent many of his holidays as an adult exploring the mountains of Snowdonia and the Lake District, as well as hiking from the north to south rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. His two-volume guide, Hillwalking in Wales, was published in 2006. A committed Christian, he preached for the Catholic Association for the Propagation of the Faith, and published Lifting the Veil: A Plain Language Guide to the Bible, in 2007.
In 1954 Hermon married Norma Brealey, a nurse, and they had four children, Juliet, David, Robert and Caroline. David died in 1976 and Norma in 2011. Hermon went on to marry Patricia Cheek, a lecturer in post-secondary education in Australia, in 2016, and she survives him, as do his remaining children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
• Peter Michael Robert Hermon, computer pioneer and manager, born 13 November 1928; died 1 November 2022