On the 3rd of March, United Airlines, the world's largest airline, moved to a single passenger service system and single web site, marking the final elements of its merger with Continental Airlines, which is no more. The cut-over didn't go as smoothly as the dress rehearsal earlier this month, which itself had some problems.
For the live event, not all check-in kiosks worked correctly, electronic tickets for some reservations weren't synchronized with passenger records, and frequent flier miles weren't updated correctly. In addition, there were issues involving the new web site.
On the 13th of March, as problems persisted, a senior United executive said that the cut-over was about halfway complete, implying that by the 23rd or 24th of March all the issues would be ironed out. This admission that United expected about 3 weeks of trouble was news to many United flyers, especially since the airline's CEO Jeff Smisek had raised expectations that the change-over was going to go smoothly and quickly, and that airline was "exceedingly well prepared for it."
Well, here we are on the 29th of March and the notice that first appeared on the United web site on the 3rd of March remains:
"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."
An AP story at Bloomberg Businessweek makes clear those problems still persist. "There were widespread reports of passengers waiting on hold to fix ticketing problems," it said. "Many said that they could not get through at all. Odd balances were showing up in frequent flier accounts."
A story at the Houston Chronicle reports a persistent problem, which United says it is close to resolving, that inconveniences its elite flyers:
"When elite fliers purchase a ticket, McCarthy [a United spokesperson] said, their names are automatically placed on an upgrade list, which is 'processed in intervals leading up to the departure time" based on a flier's status.' "
" 'Sometimes in that process, the system encounters an anomaly, something that's not correct and it stops all upgrades for that flight,' McCarthy said. 'It doesn't happen for every flight, but when it does happen, a number of elites are not getting upgraded on the schedule they expect and so they call United to get assistance or they're seeking out assistance at the airport.' "
Given that United still has 600 additional call center staff working the phones and wait times are still long, I have a hard time believing that a sporadic problem involving only elite flyers is causing many of the airline's customer care problems being reported.
In the Chronicle story, United is also strongly implying that everything will be fine very, very soon.
For those of you who have been regularly flying United since the cut-over, have things markedly improved? Or does it seem that the airline still has a lot of work to do to get its act together? Are United ticket and boarding agents at the airports finally at ease using the new system, which was originally a Continental system? This was a problem widely reported the first week.
When do you think the airline will be back to operating to the same level of service before the cut-over happened?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.