Could United Airlines’ chaotic computer “cutover” have been avoided?

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By Christopher Elliott

At United Airlines, they called it the “cutover.” It was the final and most difficult piece of the puzzle in the merger with Continental Airlines, and it involved combining two complex passenger reservations systems.

But some United passengers referred to what happened in March as something else: chaos.

A bumpy United flight

They complained about delayed flights, sluggish customer service response times and rude treatment by overwhelmed ticket agents struggling to learn a new computer system.

A closer look at the cutover and its repercussions suggests that no airline is immune to a systems failure that could affect your next flight and that beyond a common-sense strategy or two, passengers can’t do much to prepare for a meltdown.

On another level, United’s switch is also a case study in how careful planning by the airline’s customer service team averted a disaster that could have inconvenienced even more passengers.

The lead players in United’s IT drama are two reservations systems that handle functions from ticketing to loyalty programs. United’s was called Apollo; Continental’s was Shares. United chose to use Shares shortly after merging with Continental, and late on the evening of March 2, almost a year and a half after the consolidation became official, it completed the process of combining Apollo and Shares by copying the data on both systems, backing it up and then consolidating it.

That part of the cutover went relatively smoothly. But on March 3, United customers awoke to a new Web site, and the old Continental site now pointed to United.com. And airport agents powering up their workstations were greeted by a Shares log-in screen, a system that half of them hadn’t used in a real-world setting.

United customer service meltdown

Adding to the confusion, United made other, unrelated policy changes at about the same time. Those included tightening several rules for its frequent fliers, who also tend to be its most vocal customers. Lower-tier elite-level passengers could no longer get upgraded to United’s premium economy class when they reserved their tickets; they had to wait until the day of their flight to secure their Economy Plus seat assignments. The reduction of their free-checked-baggage allowance from two bags to one not only generated more complaints to United’s call centers but also strained the airline’s resources.

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Shares began to slow under the weight of the extra transaction requests, leading to more timeouts and system freezes than United had anticipated.

Call volumes surged from 1.5 million the week before the cutover to 2 million the week of the switch, exceeding what managers had planned for by 10 percent. “Handle” times — the length of time it takes to resolve a customer inquiry — jumped 120 percent. Answering inquiries took an average of 20 minutes as many agents wrestled with their new Shares interface. That, in turn, lengthened the call wait queue. Some customers hung up after spending what they said was hours on hold.

Passengers in a bind

John Buckholz, a planning manager in Ogdensburg, N.Y., spent more than three hours on the phone trying to cash in a gift certificate, which involves more steps and usually takes longer on Shares than it did on Apollo. “There was no way to talk to someone who had any power to do anything,” Buckholz complained. “Anyone I talked to was extremely short with me and just told me there was nothing I could do.”

Sergei Shevchuk, a research scientist in San Francisco who tried to phone the airline during the cutover, also grew increasingly frustrated. He’d canceled a ticket just before the switch, and when he called to find out about his refund, agents offered conflicting answers, first saying that his ticket wasn’t refundable and then that they couldn’t find his reservation. “No one there seemed to be able to locate one of the tickets,” he said.

Kathy Talcott, a United passenger who’d been waiting since January for a promised refund, received an e-mail from a customer service manager who blamed the cutover for the delay. “Things have worked very slowly,” the agent said, begging her to remain patient.

United’s customer service overwhelmed

United asserts that it didn’t permanently lose any reservations during the transition and that they eventually tracked down every itinerary, including Shevchuk’s and Talcott’s. The airline also says that the cutover wasn’t entirely to blame for the difficulties but that it might have exacerbated them.

A few days into the cutover, however, it was clear that things weren’t going well from a customer-service point of view.

My e-mail in-box was filling up quickly with United queries. So was Martin Hand’s. He holds the position of United’s senior vice president for customer experience. “My e-mail volume was up by about 10,000 percent,” he told me. “For the first three weeks, I would be up until midnight every day and start again at 5 a.m., answering customers.”

It could have been much worse.

Hand says that United began developing the customer service strategy for the cutover before the airlines merged. Last October, his department started training agents in how to use Shares and briefing them on United’s new policies. It hired 400 new call center agents and recalled almost 300 furloughed employees. “We thought it was enough,” he says.

United’s overambitious changes cause chaos and frustration

This isn’t the first complaint I’ve received about United. It had bitten off a little more than it could chew. The airport agents, whose systems had essentially been downgraded from a point-and-click interface to one that accepted only text-based line commands, turned out to be one of the critical choke points. Although that setback was temporary — United plans to add a more user-friendly interface by the end of the year — it, combined with the recently migrated passenger reservations system and the new rules, gave United and its customers a March they’d rather forget.

Asked whether he would have done anything differently in hindsight, Hand replied “I wish we hadn’t changed so many things simultaneously.”

United passengers could have protected themselves by having a printout of their itinerary with their alphanumeric record locator number — always a good idea. That way, if their itinerary disappeared into the electronic ether, an agent would have a starting point for finding it. (Here’s our ultimate guide to booking an airline ticket.)

Lessons learned and preparations made for the future

And they could have packed a sense of humor. When a whole row of computers shuts down spontaneously, what is there to do except laugh? But many passengers didn’t know about the cutover, or its probable implications, until it was too late.

United says that the situation has calmed and that it’s taking steps to keep things going smoothly. Between now and June, the carrier is hiring another 400 contact center workers, adding to the staff of 6,300 employees who answer passenger inquiries via phone and e-mail. They have cut its all-important handle times in half, achieving an average of 10 minutes, which is almost back to normal. (The goal is closer to eight minutes.)

No one knows when the next airline IT crisis might flare up or which airline it will hit. A combined US Airways-American Airlines, which some industry watchers are predicting, is a likely candidate. But if the madness afflicting United in March has taught passengers anything, it’s that there are some airline problems you just can’t plan for.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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