Twenty years ago business executives traveling by air not only had to visit an airline office to purchase a ticket, but also had to arrange for a hotel at the destination and find a rental car after arriving at the airport.

Today, that scenario has become antiquated because of computers and cooperation between travel agents and airlines. Many executives visit a travel agency, tell an agent where and when they are going and then pick up (or have delivered) their complete itinerary and accommodations.It wasn't too long ago that travel agents and airline employees distrusted each other, mainly because airlines thought travel agents were taking some of their profit, according to Kaye H. Burgon, marketing manager for Crossroads Travel Consultants.

Travel agencies have evolved from "ma and pa" operations to become an integral part of the airlines industry, said Burgon, because more than 32,000 travel agents do most of the airline ticket booking.

In fact, six U.S. airlines own the five computer reservation systems used by travel agents. They are American (SABRE); Delta (DATAS II); Northwest/TWA (PARS); Texas Air (System One); and United (APOLLO). SABRE is the largest system with 40 percent of the country's travel agent market.

When the airlines first devised their reservation systems, they naturally chose their flights first when the lists were pulled up on the computer screens. That situation wasn't the best for customers because it didn't necessarily mean the best flights or the lowest fares.

But the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a ruling that said the traveling public has a right to know all of the airline schedules for the fastest routes and lowest fares. As a compromise, Burgon said, each company can display its routes most prominently.

This seems like an innocent-enough approach to get customers on their way on the most convenient routes at the lowest possible fares, but sometimes the system might not be perfect.

Donald L. Pevsner, a writer for the Knight-Ridder Newspapers, didn't think the system was perfect and wrote about it following his attempts to book reservations for a round-the-world trip. He said that in looking for a non-stop flight between Acapulco, Mexico and Los Angeles, Delta Flight 1751 was the only one.

He said he had to go through three SABRE screens to find that flight because the American flights were listed first and they would have resulted in a much longer flight via Dallas. If a travel agent isn't competent enough or doesn't have time to filter through all of the reservation information, the customer might get second-best, he charged.

Barbara S. Hannan, passenger sales account manager for American Airlines at the Salt Lake International Airport, takes issue with Pevsner's criticism. She said she "pulled up" the flight numbers he mentioned in his article that appeared in the Deseret News June 26 and found the first screen had several airlines' routes listed.

She said American Airlines wasn't listed on the first screen. "The listing often depends on when a request for a reservation is made," she said.

Defending SABRE, Hannan said the system has information on 650 scheduled airlines in the world, with 30 million fares, 16,000 hotel properties, 36 rental car companies and 200,000 different schedules. The only computer system larger than SABRE is in the Pentagon, she said.

SABRE has 168,000 computer terminals and printers, mostly located in the 17,000 travel agents' offices tied into the system.

What this means, Hannan said, is SABRE can, at the customer's request, make airline ticket reservations, hotel reservations and rental car reservations (the same as the other systems).

But, she said, the system can also send telex messages, order foreign currency delivered at the departure location, obtain information about visas and passports, send candy or flowers to your host, arrange for ground transportation such as recreation vehicles, yachts or trains, provide travel insurance, order special meals for people with health problems and order several other travel-related items.