Philip W. Fellows

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By Patricia Sullivan  Washington Post Staff Writer Saturday, April 23, 2005

Philip W. Fellows

Philip W. Fellows, 83, whose work creating the earliest computerized airline reservations
systems made it possible for customers around the world to book travel instantly, died of
congestive heart failure March 22 at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington.

In the early 1960s, Mr. Fellows set up the first real-time computerized reservations center
for the airline industry. Eastern Airlines agents took phone calls from customers and
booked their travel on computers as they spoke, a significant technological leap from
tracking reservation requests on paper  files, and a precursor to today's online
reservations. Mr. Fellows worked for Eastern Airlines for 20 years, rising from ticket
counter clerk at what is now Reagan National Airport to general manager for data
processing to vice president of customer services. He was an early adopter of computer
technology and was cited by industry publications as the first commercial user of real-time
technology. How many little bits of information do you suppose are floating around this
company?  he mused to a reporter in the 1970s. Millions? And how many managers need
bits of the same information at the same time?

He also was interested in creating ways to track cargo, improve communication and
analyze information hidden in discrete departments that could be useful to managers
throughout a company. In the days before the invention of powerful personal computers
able to zip through data in fractions of a millisecond, teasing instant information out of
clunky mainframe computers was a major challenge.

Mr. Fellows knew about the power of computers because NASA used them to process
information that kept guided missiles on course. When that information was declassified,
Mr. Fellows began applying the lessons to the airline industry. He laboriously described in
a 1965 article the now-mundane process of inputting data, the computer system's ability
to re-sort information, and how it could alter the way businesses operate. He concluded
that "it is hardly extravagant to claim that the much talked of electronic revolution only
began when real time computer systems were evolved."

A native of Detroit, Mr. Fellows moved to Washington as a youth when his father became
chief engineer of the Works Progress Administration. His father later worked for
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. One of Mr. Fellows's brothers, the late Lawrence
Fellows, became a foreign correspondent for the New York Times.

Mr. Fellows grew up in the Burleith neighborhood and was a graduate of  
Western High
School (1939)
and American University. He served in the Army during World War II in the
European theater. He worked for Eastern Airlines at National Airport and in New York,
and was instrumental in the establishment of the Eastern shuttle service between
Washington and New York.

In 1964, he became the London-based project manager for Univac's largest overseas
client, British European Airways, and later oversaw Univac's airlines, communications
and utility customers' computer systems. Five years later, he was named president
of Telemax, then the largest firm in the computer reservations field. He created a central
reservations office able to process more than 20,000 phone calls a day from hotels, travel
agents and car rental agencies.

He helped create an accounting and inventory service for the Wine and Spirits
Wholesalers of America, and he worked for several other large corporations overseas
and in the United States. For a man who devoted his life to putting emerging technology
to work, he was uninterested in the relatively dated technology of the internal combustion
engine, said his daughter, Kristin M. Fellows of Alexandria. She drove from Chicago to
San Diego with him when he moved to his last job more than 20 years ago. Knowing his
poor driving habits and mechanical inability, she said, she arrived for the trip with a repair
toolkit. Her father showed up with his used Plymouth Volare's trunk full of Cheerios,
Tootsie Rolls, M & Ms, root beer and other American foods that she had missed while
growing up in Europe.

Mr. Fellows retired in the early 1990s and returned to Washington a year ago.

His marriage to Helen M. Fellows ended in divorce. A daughter, Karen Fellows, died in
1999.

Survivors include his daughter; a son, Philip C. Fellows of Vienna; a brother; and three
grandchildren.