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Airline Computer Guru Philip Fellows, 83, Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 23, 2005; Page B06

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.

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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 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.

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