For the first few decades of commercial air travel, central airline staff booked passengers onto 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 planes flew with empty seats. Having arrived in 1965 at the UK’s international flag carrier BOAC (the predecessor of British Airways), Peter Hermon, who died at the age of 93, computerized not only its reservation system, but also the scheduling of aircraft departures, route planning, crew rosters, and all engineering and financial services needed to keep the business running. The global standards in place today are still indebted to its success, as millions of people casually tap their phones to book a flight to Seattle or Singapore.
Domestic airlines in the US had begun automating ticketing in the 1950s, but international travel was a much more complicated issue. Hermon persuaded the BOAC board to purchase two IBM 360 computers at a cost of over £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 another £33m, training up to 300 programmers to develop a suite of programs for a network called Boadicea. Based since 1968 at Boadicea House at London Heathrow Airport, the system linked terminals in offices from the United States to Asia.
Under Hermon’s leadership, BOAC worked 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 revenue eventually covered the investment BOAC had made in computers. As a result, the company received Queen’s Awards for both technological innovation and export.
In 1972, Hermon was promoted to head of the Management Services Division, with a seat on the board of BOAC. Subsequently, as a board member of British Airways, set up in 1971 by then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, John Davies, Hermon played a key role in bringing BOAC and its European offshoot, BEA, together. Wrote the plan for the merger, then led the integration of the two companies’ management systems for the new British Airways, which launched in 1976. He was a board member of British Airways from 1976 until he left the company in 1983 , ending his time there as managing director of the European division.
Hermon told his team that he needed to go talk to the staff who would actually be selling tickets to customers before designing the system. “The most important thing is not the technology,” he told me in 2000, “but to find out what the requirements are. You have to crawl around the organization at the bottom to make sure you get all the details, because if it’s not there, it won’t work. These days you adapt business to the computer – in those days we adapted the computer to business.
It was a philosophy he had acquired in his first IT job, with Leo Computers Ltd. The catering firm J Lyons & Co had set up its Leo Computers subsidiary in 1954, three years after the Lyons Electronic Office – Leo – had become the first computer in the world to run a routine business application. Hermon joined a year later as a recent math graduate with no computer experience. Initially tasked with payroll programming for Ford Motor Corporation, within a year he oversaw the design of an extremely complicated billing application for Imperial Tobacco on the second generation Leo II.
Subsequently awarded an even more complex contract for 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 switch from Leo to Dunlop. There he directed worldwide information systems implementation for the company from 1959 to 1965, leaving Dunlop for BOAC.
Born in Oxford, Peter was the son of Beatrice (née Poulter), a seamstress, and Arthur Hermon, an engineer at Morris Motors. The family moved to Nottingham when Arthur was promoted to Technical Representative for Morris and Peter was educated at Nottingham High School. He won a Government Scholarship and an Open Scholarship to study mathematics at St John’s College, Oxford, succeeding him in 1950 after two years of National Service with the Royal Artillery which included assignments in Egypt and Libya. He graduated in 1953 with honors.
After an unhappy year teaching mathematics at Leeds Primary School, Hermon joined Leo Computers in 1955. Reflecting back in 2017 at the time, he said, “It was, looking back, like a dream; I really enjoyed life there. The people were wonderful…supervision was something that was sought rather than something that was enforced.”
After Dunlop, BOAC and British Airways, he held senior positions at US company Tandem Computers, Lloyds of London and Harris Queensway before retiring from full-time work in 1989. He subsequently worked as an occasional consultant for companies including Saatchi & Saatchi, Argos and Crédit Lyonnais.
In 1996, with his fellow Leo pioneers David Caminer, John Aris and Frank Land, Hermon co-edited User Driven Innovation: The World’s First Business Computer (1996).
In his spare time he was an enthusiastic hill walker. After roaming Kinder Scout in his youth, he spent many of his adult vacations exploring the mountains of Snowdonia and the Lake District, as well as hiking from the north to south rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. His two-volume guide, Hillwalking in Wales, was published in 2006. A committed Christian, he has preached for the Catholic Association for the Propagation of the Faith and has published Lifting the Veil: A Plain Language Guide to the Bible, in 2007.
In 1954 Hermon married Norma Brealey and they had four children, Juliet, David, Robert and Caroline. David died in 1976 and Norma in 2011. He married Patricia Cheek in 2016 and she is survived by him, as are his remaining children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.