United and Continental Will Merge Reservation Systems This Weekend

The merger, or even upgrade, of an airline's reservation system is always interesting to watch, except perhaps if you happen to be traveling during that transition period. I had that unfortunate experience when I became an unwitting member of the great US Airways-America West reservation system migration fiasco of 2007. Just before the new system cut-over, the US Airways senior vice president of customer service boasted, "We get to demonstrate that these transitions aren't as big and as difficult as historically has been proclaimed."

I think he is still eating crow from that statement.

What in fact the US Airways experience demonstrated to me was to never, ever again fly on an airline during the week or two when it was modifying its reservation system (in fact, it took a good four to six months for US Airways to get all the elements of its reservation system to work correctly).

No doubt that same conclusion has been reached recently by passengers on Cathay Pacific, which rolled out a new reservation system on the  weekend of 11 February. According to news reports, there are still problems affecting it. Other recent reservation system hiccups have affected Virgin America passengers, who suffered for over two months when the airline launched its new reservation system last October, while Virgin Blue passengers in Australia felt the effects for some six months after its new reservation system went live in September of 2010.    

This weekend passengers on United Airlines, the world's largest airline (pdf), will get to experience how well the airline has managed the move to a single passenger service system (PSS) and single website (pdf) that will mark the final elements of the merger of United with Continental Airlines. The two airlines agreed to merge in September 2010.

Beginning at 0100 EST on the 3rd of March, the current reservation and web sites of both airlines will go dark for about 4 hours. United will move off its Apollo reservations system to Continental's SHARES system. Once completed, Continental will cease to exist as an airline, and its CO ticket designation will be retired.

According to stories at the Chicago Tribune and the Houston Chronicle the airline recently ran three full dress rehearsals which highlighted some problems, but the fourth ran without incident.

Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Continental Holdings, the parent company, said he expected the change-over to go smoothly, and that airline is "exceedingly well prepared for it."

However, just in case, Smisek stated that United is going to fly fewer flights this weekend "to take some of the load off the airports themselves in case there are any kind of slower processing times so that we don't inconvenience the customers." However, United says neither service nor its revenues will be affected by the flight reduction.

I should point out that US Airways based its confident prediction after running three "extensive tests" which later proved to have missed some glaring technical problems. Employee training, especially of US Airways personnel who had to use America West's reservation system, also proved to be sorely lacking.

For those flying United this weekend, I hope everything goes well. But I might pack some extra clothes and maybe a sleeping bag just in case.

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