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

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.

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

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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 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.

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. Their free-checked-baggage allowance was also cut from two bags to one, generating more complaints to United’s call centers and straining the airline’s resources.

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.

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 says that it didn’t permanently lose any reservations during the transition and that every itinerary, including Shevchuk’s and Talcott’s, was eventually tracked down. 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’s 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.

But United had bitten off a little more than it could chew. One of the critical choke points proved to be the airport agents, whose systems essentially had been downgraded from a point-and-click interface to one that accepted only text-based line commands. Although that was a temporary setback — 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 to give United and its customers a March they’d rather forget.

Asked whether he would have done anything differently in hindsight, Hand replied that “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.

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. Its all-important handle times have been cut in half, to 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.

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

  1. I am a United 1K mileage plus member. I was travelling over the merger weekend and continue to travel just about every two weeks since then. I have had no problems, with flights or with mileage posting. I have had to call UA 1K mileage plus number a few times for some minor adjustments to up and coming flights, hold time has been minimal, no more than 2 minutes.

  2. “I wish we hadn’t changed so many things simultaneously.”  Well, yes.  That is the whole point of having staged builds for integration.  No question, United blew it.  Anyone that has ever done a major software build recognised that.

  3. First rule in change management is to prepare for change, both technical and personnel-wise. They could have done a few email blasts to inform passengers about the upcoming changes and re-sent itineraries, just in case. Too much change too fast is rarely a good thing, especially when the changes aren’t positive ones, like losing perks.

    Companies nowadays have great PR and try to put a positive spin on everything. “This merger means better service for YOU, our valued customers”. For once, I’d love someone to say, “Yeah, you’re gonna get totally screwed. We’ve cut most of our personnel so you’ll have to stay on the phone longer. Bring a book. Also, most of our ground staff are a bit scared of technology and are probably underpaid which is why they won’t be all that helpful. But then again, all the airlines are going down the toilet, so you don’t have a ton of options here.” I’d find that honesty refreshing.

    1. Another US carrier changed their reservation system about 2 years ago. They advised their customers to expect delays on the phone and the airport. They asked passengers to arrive at the airports early. They suggested that future travel be booked before the cutover, or wait until well after the date. They reduced the number of seats sold on each flight to avoid crowds at the airports. Extensive training (about three weeks worth) was provided to every reservations and airport employee. They offered unlimited overtime to airport and reservation personnel to assist during the transition period. Executive were called out to the airports to assist the agents with whatever they could, managing lines, tagging bags..etc. There were plenty of hiccups, and a few upset passengers…especially those who’s reservations did not move into the new system. Great costs were taken to make that period go as smoothly as possible. Perfect? No, but certainly United could have taken a few pages from their book.

      1. Huge difference – in this case over 1/2 the reservations were transferred from one system to another, and even though they agents may have had training, actual time on those computers was another thing altogether – this was probably the MAJOR problem here.

        1. Not sure what you mean. In the other case I mentioned, 100% of the reservations were transferred and the system rolled out with no live experience for the agents…only training time.

          1. but using a web-based system is point and click, not so with the airline GDS systems – something a lay person does NOT understand is just how archaic and convoluted these systtems are – aand how they do not transfer all info over into another system.

  4.  Although there definitely were some issues, it really could have been a lot worse. Of course, it is easy to criticize them after the fact, but other than the call centers and hold times, no ‘major’ disruptions happened. I was flying on 3/3 that included both former UA and CO flights, and didn’t see anything unusual or wrong going on.
    Few flights were delayed (due to the cutover, they may have for other reasons), everything at the airport was working fine, staff at the airport were working fine, people that already had tickets got where they needed to go.
    Also, changes for baggage allowances and E+ only applied to tickets bought after 3/2, not everyone flying after 3/2, so that was just complaints, not problems.

  5. I was Gold Elite (this year; previous years I made Platnium) on Continental and they shifted my status to UA. I had to wait almost 90 minutes on hold on the Premier number to fix something they screwed up. They had somehow changed one of my flights so I was returning on a day BEFORE I was departing (!?!?!?).

    Computer glitches, I understand. But if you are anticipating a problem, get more people into those call centers…!

    1. Raven’s problem was exactly the urgent communication need that could have been taken care of if people weren’t hogging the phone lines for problems that could wait.  I’ve only had to call UA’s elite line (whatever it’s called now, I was CO silver) once about 2 weeks ago and it took 45 minutes to unscrew a really simple problem … more people in call centers won’t help if they’re not trained and experienced.  The woman was pathetically slow and it wasn’t just the fact that she was using a new computer system …  she didn’t seem to understand anything I was telling her so it took forever for her to grasp my very simple problem.  The background noise was horrendous, I can’t imagine working in an environment like that, much less being able to think.

        1. Where the person I talk to is located doesn’t really matter to me as long as we speak the same language and can have a basic understanding of why I am calling.

          I do prefer people I talk to to be in the US just because it means someone has a job here instead of a foreign country.

    2. Unfortunately, i think all the simulated training did the agents absolutely NO GOOD – it only helps to sit in front of the machine and actually work it (over and over) to be completely comfortable – and so this is where a big problem comes in – by stretching the time on each call as the unfamiliar program baffled agents, even though they had training.  ALWAYS a pain!

      1. At the Denver airport, there were dozens of UA employees gathered around every CO gate for several weeks prior to the big conversion.  Most seemed occupied with gossip, but there were a few that seemed truly interested in learning the system.  They were working with live passengers on real flights getting them rebooked for missed connections and so on.  I just think most of the UA employees didn’t want to learn.

  6. Cathay Pacific did changeover to their new reservation system on 12FEB ( ~3 weeks before the UA/CO). Minor issues only.

    The CO/UA changeover was a nightmare not only to passengers but also to travel agents. Neither got compensated for the hassles caused by the merger.

    Actually I noticed much earlier than 3MAR that something was not right with the CO/UA integration. We were trying to process a refund (allowed by the WRITTEN fare rules) and no one in the new integrated CO/UA sales office could help us. That suggested to me that people inside these 2 companies were pretty confused about who is responsible for what. I  recommended my clients take another airline until the merger blues were all ironed out. Unfortunately, that’s not easy to do for those who want to fly out of EWR (CO’s main hub).

    I didn’t vote. I don’t want to second guess the reasons behind this 03MAR epic fail. I only want to say was that this was too big to screw up. And they did.

  7. This who conversion has been a nightmare.  I am a United 1K, have been for years, and my reservation disappeared for the flight on March 4, and I spend 2 hours on hold with the 1K Line and still had to go to the airport to get it fixed.  Almost 2 months later, I am still having problems.  When I call, the majority of the time they tell me that can’t help me and I need to e-mail.  Sometimes they try to help and I wait quite a long time on hold, and then they can’t.  I am still missing miles, I am still missing upgrade certificates I tried to use and didn’t clear and they have not been re-deposited, and I randomly get booted form my seat.  I also have a few e-mails I sent over 6 weeks ago that have not been replied to.
    The new policies are mostly CO policies, there are a lot more fees, and the focus seems to be on selling elite benefits out from under elites.  I used to fly on nice comfortable planes with economy plus and free movies, and now I am on cramped planes with no economy plus and I have to pay for TV.  Also my elite upgrades plummeted to zero.
    Continental used to be a great airline, as was United.  In fact for a time I think Continental was even better.  Then Jeff became CEO of Continental and screwed it all up, and he has been doing the same thing to United.  I think the worst thing was moving from a modern system, to the old SHARES mainframe.  Nothing happens in real time any more, I can’t even buy a ticket in real time, and the agents have told me they went form a nice Graphical User Interface that did everything in real time and very quickly, to a green screen with lengthy commends that must be typed in, 5 times as many steps, and many things require batch processing windows to complete.  However they were told that the reason they switched to SHARES was because it is no longer supported, so there is no licensing fee to pay and it saves millions of dollars a year.

    1. Hi Emanon, I was wondering, considering that United and Continental are ‘superior’ than their competitors for a number of well traveled routes inside the USA, where could unhappy road warriors go if they desert UA? Would they be happier with Delta Skymiles or AAdvantage? If airlines keep on shrinking capacity, then elites would be competing more and more with the paying public for available seats. If airlines had to choose between giving a seat to an elite (award or upgrade) versus a paying customer, I wonder which one they would give the seat to?

      Another question that bugs me is if 2 airlines merge and then reduce redundancies, then you may have the combined elites of the 2 airlines going for less resources. If the trend is pointing to more and more mergers (i.e. American and USAir) then it does not look good for those with millions of miles whose values seem to be depreciating fast. I wonder if the rate of mileage points keep piling up faster than the growth rate of capacity in US air carriers.

      1. I would have to say it depends on where the travel lives. I would switch to Delta or AA in a heartbeat, but as I now live in Denver, I can’t really get anywhere without a connection or flying at inconvenient times, and with the limited amount of time I have at home, that’s not really an option. I can say I got far more upgrades as a Delta Gold than as a UA 1K, even before the merger. But their schedules don’t work for me right now. My coworkers who fly AA claim to get upgraded 100% of the time, not sure I believe them. On my Denver based flights there wasn’t a lot of overlap with CO routes, so I don’t think there are necessarily more elites with less capacity. Some bases like EWR where there was a TON of CO and a fair amount of UA, I can see a doubling up of elites with reduced capacity. Though if both airlines were flying full, why would they reduce the capacity? I have not seen a flight go out with more than 1 or 2 empty seats since around 2009 when UA cut back capacity. So where do all of these travelers go when they cut back capacity further? I have noticed a reduction in flights, smaller planes, and ticket prices going up since the merger.

        Now if they have a choice of offering a free seat to an elite or a paid seat to a general member, they should (for their own $ benefit) offer the paid seat first, but they should also be clearer in how they publish their elite benefits. UA used to have separate award inventory for 1Ks, this was clearly published, and very transparent. I could see the inventory on-line. I can also say that every time I tried to book a flight for my wife and the general award inventory was full, I would still have access to the special inventory. The new UA still lists this as a published benefit, but every time I try to book travel for my wife, the special elite inventory is always equal to the general inventory, and they are both usually 0. What bothers me is why publish a benefit, if you don’t actually offer it? Just say you no longer offer it. Don’t make someone fly 100,000 miles a year to get a benefit, and then not actually offer it. United used to always make good on the benefits they offered.

        Also, Untied had a clearly published upgrade policy, the new one is also published, but operates in a black box even CO employees whose system it was don’t seem to understand it. For example, last week I was on a 757 with 24 F seats. I used to always get upgraded on 757s. They were my sure thing. I haven’t yet been upgraded on one since the upgrade, but F always goes out full. So last week I was sitting at #2 on the upgrade list. The new upgrade list shows who cleared each upgrade. When I checked in, there were already 11 people already upgraded with 6 seats left (The rest were paid F). Throughout the day 6 more people got upgraded while I remained at position #2. Also, several times I have traveled with my wife, thought she is on a separate itinerary as we are usually booking from opposite sources and together on one leg. She now gets offers to upgrade for rock bottom prices, like $59-$109, while I get no such offer. Her offers even say things like, “Upgrade to first class right now for $59, there are currently 45 people on the waitlist.” I have asked United employees about this, and they all deny it. But it appears they are simply trying to get a few extra dollars from general members, rather than upgrading elites. So again, why publish upgrades as a benefit, if you then sell the benefit out from under them for next to nothing and lie about it? If you are going to sell upgrades, sell it at a fair price, even 50% of what a first class ticket actually costs, if you sell one of them you will make more than these $59 upgrades. Or if you want to offer these rock bottom upgrades, admit to it, publish it as your policy, and offer it to everyone, not just non-elites.

        1. Emanon, thanks for your long reply. I now have a clearer understanding on how loyal UA elites feel. Pissed off.

  8. I didn’t vote…because my March was as smooth as could be asked for…booked a UAL mileage trip from Newark to LA early in the month, was notified by e-mail of the new reservation number and that my FF number was now my Continental number…the flights were comfortable and on time; and the gate and flight crews seem to have adopted Continental’s (much more) “customer-friendly” demeanor…all in all I came away much more inclined to fly United than before.

  9. Nobody knows if UA/CO did it right or not.  But a great deal of the problem was caused by people hanging on the phone the first two weeks after the cutover to inquire about non-urgent matters.  Why people can’t think about the whole picture and have a little patience instead of tying up the phone lines about a refund that’s 3 months old is beyond me.  Surely anyone can understand that the new UA should have been able to expend resources fixing really urgent problems like a screwed-up res for a family of 4 who is supposed to be travelling in 3 days. 

    1. Why just a family of 4? Why should I wait when my departure was in less than 48 hrs and they somehow screwed up the return so it was BEFORE the departure?

      Is that because I’m not a family of 4 going to Di$ney? C’mon. 

      1. Raven, your case was definately a qualifier.  But yes, I think people just calling to whine about the fall trip they wer planning to take did not, and DID slow things down for the more important calls (like yours!)

    2. On the other hand, why should the CUSTOMER have to show some patience?  We didn’t ask for this merger in the first place; the only benefit most people saw was getting rid of United’s former CEO (and compared to Jeff, even he looks good!).  It’s not the customer’s job to be patient with major problems; it’s the company’s job to get it right.

      I’ve observed this process from many angles, including the viewpoint of a former software QA manager. The first problem was choosing SHARES, which is a far less-capable system than Apollo to begin with.  Then the process gives all indications of being inadequately tested.  When your corporate livelihood depends on a functioning computer system, you need to test it within an inch of its life before implementing a cutover.  Finally, there was not enough training given to pre-merger United workers.  Maybe those who have been around long enough to have used Apollo before United spun it off (that’s 20+ years ago) might have remembered some of the old commands, but even those would have been different.

      Twenty years ago Delta was widely regarded as having a dinosaur IT system.  My experience more recently is that their system is far more advanced than either United’s (especially now) or American’s.

      1. I think Deltamatic is still a dinosaur. I noticed that a number of European and Asian carriers have moved to Amadeus’ Altea (suite). Nevertheless, I think any system will have a tough time with United since (IMO) UA has so many upgrade options that most airlines don’t have.

  10. I agree with cheazlit – never change more than one thing in one go.  Integrate the systems then make the policy changes.

  11. I am Premier Executive (Star Alliance Gold).  I am missing mileage and segments.  Two calls to Mileage Plus, along with a polite e-mail have not solved the problems.
    Is United going to fix these problems?

  12. I don’t suppose the 400 new call center employees were based in the US, were they?  I find the disconnect between American culture, expectations and idioms and the culture, expectations and idioms of overseas call center employees severely handicaps handling matters quickly. 

    1. The 400 were from the Continental call center located in Houston. They were all let go and then brought back to help with the “unexpected” call volume. 

      One of the things I really liked about CO was when I called (which was very seldom) I actually got someone who understood me and I could understand.  

      1. “I’m sorry, [insert prefix here] sershev, did you say your problem was that Houston based agents are not helpful and polite?  I apologize for that.  Is there anything else I can help you with today?  Oh, you want to check the status of your flight?  I apologize for that [insert prefix here] sershev.  Please hold as I look for that information.  Yes, I see that your flight number has been changed.  I apologize for that.  Is there anything else I can help you with today?  I’m sorry, I don’t understand “quit reading from the script”.  I apologize for that.  Is there anything else I can help you with today [insert prefix here] sershev?  Yes, my name is Betty and I am located in Kansas City.  No, I do not know how my home town team of the Cardinals is doing, I apologize for that.  Is there anything else I can help you with today [insert prefix here] sershev?”

        I, for one, don’t find *anyone*, based at *any* location reading from a script helpful nor polite, merely (semi literate.  US-based agents are far less likely to read from a script and quit wasting time with their meaningless apologies and offers of further “help”.

  13. United are a hopeless monolith.

    A few big legacy carriers will fall around the world this year.

    Will United be one of them ?

    I wouldn’t touch United.

    They have the oldest & shabbiest aircraft across the Pacific & their flight attendants look like they’ve just had their 70th birthday & have trouble doing their job.

    Flight attendants should retire at about 30. Ask Richard Branson.

    1. A flight attendant isn’t a fashion model, or your “private” fantasy girl.  She’s not there to cater to your chauvanistic attitude, she’s there to see to the safety of the plane, its crew and passengers.  To assume they have to be raving beauties to do the job tells me just how ridiculous you are.

      1. actually most waitresses on planes are useless when it comes to safety & if they are 70 years plus, they can hardly do their job.

        Have seen waitresses on United with severe Parkinsons, who shouldn’t be flying at all.

  14. I still can’t get them to credit my FF with the return trip of a CO flight from September.  They gave me the outbound but said the return “didn’t qualify”.  Say what?

  15. Working as IT specialist, I can safety said “Any change/conversion/merge is a nightmare” whatever you prepare, test, re-test… The only thing UA can do is enhance the Customer support for Travelers and Employees and it seems failed. May be not technically but the human factor is the big responsibility. I could speculate easily that UA employees are not happy with the choice of CO system. It’s understandable and the unfamiliarity with the new tools didn’t give the customers the usual support and satisfaction.
    The CO and UA website don’t have all the information of the impact of the merge. For example, I flew last week London LHR to Newark EWR on UA-29 Biz Class, but nowhere on UA-CO website indicate me that I can use the SKYTEAM Lounge in LHR Term 4. At Neward EWR at United Club Lounge, the personel tried to tell me I cannot use the United Club Lounge, I insist they check again and they let me in.
    The merge of Delta/Northwest seemed less troublesome as I remembered.

  16. Hindsight being 20/20, the smart thing to have done would have been to migrate UA to the new system first, independently, and then merge the two systems together once the UA team understood the new res system. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur that way but I sure there was a pretty sound reason to take the higher risk approach.

    I really don’t think either former customer base is happy with the merger. Old UA customers complain about the loss of Economy Plus (at least until they get the fleet redone) plus the loss of the website that they were used to (but those of us that weren’t found really hard to use). CO customers complain about the adoption of the constant upsell that you get now and never got from the old CO plus the Far East call centers that CO didn’t use but UA did and still does.

    1. Agree very much with your last sentence.  Received an e-mail last September on a flight change on United that was to take place over Thanksgiving.  E-mail said “Call NOW!”.  Did – was on hold for 20 minutes.  Ended up with an overseas call center rep who wanted to upsell the seating; there was no other reason for me to call.   

    2. It had to be a full integration, so as not to completely lose any reservations.  Unfortunately, when you are not just merging systems, but merging from one into another, the staff (no matter how well trained by simulation) find it difficult when faced with the actual systems.  They don’t always work the same live as on paper – and when faced with more calls thean usual, and each call is TAKING longer as you move through the new system – nightmare!

      1. @Lindabator:disqus the point I was making is that they could have done the integration in two steps. Step 1. Migrate Old UA bookings to a new completely separate version of SHARES and you migrate the website to the SHARES version. This way Old UA employees have time to learn the new system live without all the added hassles of system integration as well. Step 2. Take two identical systems and merge them. Now on cutover weekend all you have to deal with are system merger issues and not employee education plus system merger issues.

        This method is lower risk but takes longer. Also has the potential for higher costs as you have to essentially maintain to datacenters initially.

        1. But these are not web-based systems, but fully integrated GDS services, so what you propose might sound great, just doesn’t work with the airlines.  ALL migrations have to be a complete shift – there is no way to build a separate system, as there is only ONE you can attach to.  You are thinking more about websites, and this was not where the problem was – it was in the GDS systems migration.  Always was a headache, always will be.  (Unfortunatley, when these guys merged, they were on COMPLETELY different systems, so the use of the new one could really throw the agents)

          1. The real problem, according to my friends at the ticket counter, was the lack of training for the UA/Apollo agents switching to the Shares system  They had less than 40 hours of training on the new system, some had less than 16 hours of training.  If you have made a switch from one GDS to another, you know that the basic concepts are the same however the formats are completely different and it takes a lot more time to do anything.  This failure in training made a rough situation into a terrible one.

          2. Absolutely – feel so sorry for them.  I’ve switched from Apollo to Worlspan to Sabre back to Apollo, and you’re always forgetting the new formats, regardless of how much training.  Its only through the constant repetition of doing the job that it really sinks in.  

  17. I guess I was one of the lucky ones.  All of my miles/certificates and so on from both programs came together without issue.  While I did not fly on UA during the three weeks around the cutover (I was burning my Southwest reward flights I earned before their disaster of a change to their FF program), the flights I have taken since have gone without issue and I have even gotten my upgrades.  And the 1st class food is mostly better than what CO was serving at last.  (Although the ramen noodle surprise served on the last UA flight was really a surprise and really bad.)

    I do look at the planes assigned to the routes I want to fly and pick the former CO planes whenever possible.  Why?  I know a lot of the former CO FAs and pilots and they still fly those planes and still do a lot of things the CO way.  But mainly those planes have more 1st class seats than the equivalent UA domestic planes which increase my chances at an upgrade.

    But, I am not happy. 

    On cutover weekend, the wait to get through the checkin counter and security at IAH was over 4 hours.  There were only 2 or 3 workers at the counters that had space for 20.  Most passengers could not print their boarding passes at home or even at the automated machines at the airport because they were lost in the system and those few agents were hand writing passes for the passengers.  Local news was there and caught on tape a red coat telling one crying passenger to “get back in line and wait or I will have the police arrest you.”  Great customer service, isn’t it?  There were more police visible at the airport than UA employees. 

    I have seen the former CO gate agents and check in counter workers continue with a sour and aggressive attitude where the simplest questions get you berated for interfering with their attempts to do their job.  And at the smaller airports I fly through, the former CO workers who were always happy to try to help with issues are no longer there, replaced by new people who don’t seem to care about anything except when their next break will be.

    Prices have also gone way up.  It is costing me roughly double what it did last year at this time to fly the same routes on the same planes.  I know fuel is up, but not that much.  Oh, and full fare Y class is no longer a refundable ticket on the new UA!

    A lot of the perks I got for being a top tier CO frequent flyer are no longer available to me since under the new UA plan, I am third level from the top (Global Services, 1K, and then me at Platinum).   I know a lot of you here will probably say serves me right because no one should receive anything extra just for flying with an airline a lot.  However, the other changes to what was a great airline (CO) just don’t seem to make sense other than being a grasp at everything possible to save a few dollars to push off the inevitable bankruptcy that will happen in a few short years.

  18. That same weekend I traveled out of SNA to FLL on United. Overnight, before my flights, the physical merging of the CO/UA ticket counters took place. Previously, the two counters were in different terminals & it was CO that moved to the UA location. I knew we were in trouble when the line of people extended out of John Wayne’s front door. 4 flights FULL of passengers were all checking in simultaneously. United cleared their flights first, but the Continental-booked passengers remained in line with each one taking 15-20 mins. for processing by CO agents and UA agents claimed they were unable to help expedite us.It was a nightmare.

    Every flight was held 90 mins. to 2 hours. I stood in line for 2.5 hours. Fortunately, I had a generous connection time in IAH. Hundreds of others were not so lucky! It looked like the Keystone Cops behind those counters. No one had any demeanor of control at all.  UA clearly underestimated the impact and had, once again, put their cart before their horse. Personnel were not trained or prepared in the slightest.

  19. As an IT project manager, I winced violently the entire way through this article. I’ve been down this road and there is no good way out; when you are replacing a major system, there are always things you didn’t anticipate.

    If United doesn’t have an IT executive who reports up to the Customer Experience department, someone who can analyse planned projects and who has at least limited veto power over “front-facing” systems, they need to hire one, stat.

  20. This has shown all sorts of problems – the week before the cutover I made Continental reservations using award tickets – the week AFTER the merger they called me and told me that they had changed the connection times for the return trip and the trip was no longer viable and needed to be changed – but then they told me that I needed to find seats  for flights that still had award tickets – and it was MY problem, not theirs – and if I did not want to do it when they called – they would ‘be forced’ to redeposit the miles into my account for the return portion and then charge me $150 a ticket to redeposit.  

    They change the schedule and its my problem and they are gonna charge me to fix their issue.  It took almost an hour to get it fixed because I saw availability online on their website that they could not book – and the agent even SAW the free ticket availability and could not access the free inventory using the new system.  

     I understand changed times and blown connections with new times, but to tell me that its my fault, I need to fix it and if I don;t they are gonna charge me $300 – thats just over the top.  

    Then it happened again 10 days ago – a free ticket for my MIL – THEY changed the connection times – and it was same run around.  This time however they took a first class reservation and changed the itinerary and down graded it to coach but did not tell us.  I then needed to get back on the phone because once again there was inventory that was clearly available online that they would not change the ticket to – I needed to a human being who obviously was on the subcontinent and was telling me there was a change fee when the contract of carriage clearly spells out there was no fee.  

    Finally ‘Bob’ shopped me to a US based rep who immediately saw the problem after I spent 45 min with Bob who did not understand what had happened – and we had it fixed in about 5 min.  

    Its the insanity of the untrained and incompetent telling something that is not true – then dealing with reps who see you as just another problem even though their jobs is to solve problems.  

    Dear airlines, hotel, and car rental companies –  if I am CALLING you  it means I need to speak with a human being to address a problem.  I DON’T want 14,000 different voice prompt options – if I press zero I want ahuman being – I do’;t want to enter endless information into your system that is not transferred to the person and I have to start all over again – 

    1. I had the same experience with UA pre-merger.

      Also got a notice that they changed my flight and I had to call right away… so they could upsell me.

      Had another one pre merger where they cancelled my flight, couldn’t get me out until after my return so they had me drive 1.5 hours away to another airport… and then wanted to charge me a change fee to return to the new airport. That was a fun call to the far east.

      1. My point was merely that everybody has a horror story – I think if I could bill the time I spend dealing with travel hassles I could retire. . . . 

        I remember one time being on hold on three separate lines on speaker to three different airlines . . . .

        1. True, I can tell you a few horror stories from both CO and UA pre merger that would make you go “huh?” and ask me why I continued to fly with either.  Answer is: most of the time there really is no other choice.  WN and F9 are available to me, but each has their own limitations and frustrating policies as well.  So, I just choose whatever airline appears to offer the best flights to fit my schedule now and hope for the best.

  21. What I find most telling (and depressing) from this entire discussion is the comment (if true) that UAL/CO decided to go with the SHARES system to save on software licensing fees since that system was no longer supported by the software company that developed it. And expecting either employees or customers to use a non-GUI based system is a very 20th-century, backward-looking approach to the technological link between the airline and its customers. (Anyone here want to go back to DOS?)

  22. I’m no expert, and I don’t completely know if UA did what I’m about to write. IMHO, UA could’ve gradually announced this system change so many (if not all) people can anticipate and maybe make allowances for possible issues after.

    Probably too short or too long, but I’d say give notice at least a year before the actual software/system change. Then another 6 months before, then another 3 months before, something along those lines.

    Of course, a drawback there is there will be people who’ll switch to other competitors thinking they can’t handle it. While not a 100% surefire solution, UA could’ve also offered something…anything…that can give some degree of confidence they’re realistically on top of things for the most part.

    For sure, everyone learned from this. For UA’s sake, they’d better.

  23. I would love to know what the management/executives at UA/CO think of what happened. Are they spinning it as a perfect (or semi-perfect) cross over, or are they saying that they could have done better?

  24. We flew United the week of 3/26. We had one layover in Chicago. We had no problems until we tried to board our connecting flight in Chicago. Somehow, our boarding passes had been voided, along with our entire confirmation for the trip.
    The counter at Chicago worked, and we almost missed our flight as they tried to figure it out.
    On the flight back from LAS back thru SFO to IAD, we had just as much ‘fun’. We boarded in LAS and several passengers on the plane had duplicate seat numbers, including a few United employees. They also were manually counting the seats and manually checking off a few people via a printed list.  Then in SFO, the same thing, duplicate tickets for some, plane over booked, and a few had to stay behind. We also didn’t have the upgraded seats.
    It took me a full month of emailing and calling to get the credit for us not getting to sit in the paid upgraded seats. Funny thing was, the CSR said she could see on our confirmation number that there was a system error for the seating.

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