United Airlines Reservation System Cutover Hits Some Turbulence

Although United Airlines said that its fourth and final dress rehearsal in preparation for its cutover to a merged reservation system and website with the now defunct Continental Airlines went off without a hitch—prompting it to say that it didn't "expect any interruptions in operations or customer service", when the actual cutover occurred over the weekend—not everything went according to plan.

At first, however, it appeared that all had gone smoothly. Indeed, initial optimistic reports on Saturday morning indicated that the cutover had proceeded without a hitch. For instance, a story posted on the New Jersey Star-Ledger website reported that the transition took a little more than two hours instead of the four that had been allocated. The United customers the paper interviewed also said they hadn't experienced any issues of concern.

However, by noon, news reports were starting to filter out that "minor" issues were cropping up at the new United website and at the airline's automated check-in kiosks (reminiscent of the US Airways reservation migration problems from 2007). The kiosk-related problems soon created very long check-in lines at many airports.  By mid-morning the cavalcade of "minor" issues started to impact departure times at several major United hubs. For example, by 1300 local time, only 8 percent of United flights originating from Chicago O'Hare had left on time . Although United got some of the issues sorted out and the situation improved, by the end of the day, only 26 percent of United flights had left on time from Chicago and only 28 percent had left Dulles Airport near Washington, D.C., on time.

United tried to down play the difficulties it was experiencing, saying that its reservation system transition was on track. However, the airline's predictions that the cutover would occur without a hitch had raised customer expectations to the point that "minor" issues probably made customers more angry than they might have been otherwise.

Even as the pace of departures improved throughout the day on Sunday, the problems with the kiosks remained a sticking point, keeping check-in lines long and travelers (and United customer service workers) harried. To top the dysfunction off, customers also found it difficult to reach customer support. A notice at United's web site stated that:

"Our Contact Centers are currently experiencing extraordinarily high call volumes. In some cases hold times exceed an hour, and you may be prompted to try your call at another time. We are working to improve this service level and apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."

The notice is still there as of this morning.

A big issue seems to be that the merger of United's and Continental's frequent flyer programs and customer details hasn't gone quite as smoothly as envisioned. This has seemingly affected some customers' reservations.

So far, the United reservation cutover has to be rated a "success," even if it is a bit bumpy. It will be interesting to see what unfolds today as United ramps up to a full flight schedule from the limited one it deliberately flew over the weekend; this is when the airline's reservation, Web operations, and its customers' patience will really start to be tested.

Update: At noon, the Wall Street Journal reports that while the phone lines are still jammed, most United flights have taken off as normal Monday morning.

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