United-Continental Airlines' Reservation System Still a Mess

Jeff Smisek, chief executive of United Continental Airlines, admitted to the Chicago Tribune yesterday that the reservation system cut-over that took place in early March is still having "issues," including the inability of the airline website to show the correct accrual of passenger frequent flier miles. The ongoing problems, er... issues, have meant that airline passengers are still experiencing long hold-times to speak to customer service, he stated.

As you may recall from earlier Risk Factor blog posts before the cut-over, Smisek claimed that the airline was "exceedingly well prepared for it.” After the cut-over and the anger it engendered among the airline's passengers, another senior airline executive claimed that the all issued would be resolved by around the 24th of March.

What I found most interesting in the Tribune article was the following:

“While some problems were system glitches, others were simply gaps in functionality between the old and new systems, Smisek said. For example, fliers used to be able to go online and purchase a United Club membership -- allowing access to exclusive airport lounges -- with frequent flier miles. The new site doesn't allow that yet but will, he said.”

“ ‘Some people say that's a systems glitch. No it's not. It's a gap that we knew about going in,’ he said. ‘We're going to accelerate the gap closure...with some of them, we made a mistake in realizing how valuable they were to customers.’”

There are no statements that I can find prior to the cut-over, or even afterwards, when United-Continental stated that some previous existing reservation system and website functionality (popular or not) was not going to be available for some time after the cut-off. All statements were quite to the contrary. However, to not let United-Continental flyers know is not merely a mistake; it is a blunder of the first order that one learns not to do in IT systems operation class 101. Further, it also points out that United-Continental is out of touch with its frequent flyers since it didn’t know what is a valued business offering and what is not.

In addition, in the Tribune interview, Smisek admitted that changing the rules when the airlines combined frequent flier programs wasn’t too smart a move either.  

Travel agents haven’t been too impressed with the reservation system cut-over, either. According to a story at Travel Market Report, which says it is “the voice of travel sellers around the globe,” travel agents are calling the current situation at United-Continental a “serious mess;” one agent interviewed even called it “the biggest mess I’ve seen in 30 years,” which is saying something. The ongoing problems are causing some agents to avoid booking their clients on United-Continental whenever possible.

The Travel Market Report story implies that the wait times for customer service are much worse than the United-Continental is publicly admitting. The airline is claiming that waits for travel agents is averaging about 15 to 20 minutes (and for customers United around 5 minutes); however, the airline also sent an apologetic email to one frustrated travel agency earlier this week saying that its call center was “averaging 20 calls on hold at a time, with an average wait time of 1.45 hours.”

The Travel Market Report story also highlighted a software glitch that apparently didn’t get picked up by testing prior to the reservation system cut-over. According to the story, “In some cases where passengers were slated to cross the International Date Line, some of the segments were out of order.” No doubt this caused those passenger reservations to be kicked out or flagged as being invalid.

Reminds me of when the world’s most advanced fighter the F-22 crossed the International Date Line for the first time and its computer systems were reported to have gone haywire.

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Willie D. Jones
 
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