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.
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.
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.”