Could United Airlines’ chaotic computer “cutover” have been avoided?

by Christopher Elliott on May 8, 2012


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.”

Sergei Shevchuk, a research scientist in San Francisco who tried to phone the airline during the cutover, also grew increasingly frustrated. He’d canceled a ticket just before the switch, and when he called to find out about his refund, agents offered conflicting answers, first saying that his ticket wasn’t refundable and then that they couldn’t find his reservation. “No one there seemed to be able to locate one of the tickets,” he said.

Kathy Talcott, a United passenger who’d been waiting since January for a promised refund, received an e-mail from a customer service manager who blamed the cutover for the delay. “Things have worked very slowly,” the agent said, begging her to remain patient.

United says that it didn’t permanently lose any reservations during the transition and that every itinerary, including Shevchuk’s and Talcott’s, was eventually tracked down. The airline also says that the cutover wasn’t entirely to blame for the difficulties but that it might have exacerbated them.

A few days into the cutover, however, it was clear that things weren’t going well from a customer-service point of view.

My e-mail in-box was filling up quickly with United queries. So was Martin Hand’s. He’s United’s senior vice president for customer experience. “My e-mail volume was up by about 10,000 percent,” he told me. “For the first three weeks, I would be up until midnight every day and start again at 5 a.m., answering customers.”

It could have been much worse.

Hand says that United began developing the customer service strategy for the cutover before the airlines merged. Last October, his department started training agents in how to use Shares and briefing them on United’s new policies. It hired 400 new call center agents and recalled almost 300 furloughed employees. “We thought it was enough,” he says.

But United had bitten off a little more than it could chew. One of the critical choke points proved to be the airport agents, whose systems essentially had been downgraded from a point-and-click interface to one that accepted only text-based line commands. Although that was a temporary setback — United plans to add a more user-friendly interface by the end of the year — it combined with the recently migrated passenger reservations system and the new rules to give United and its customers a March they’d rather forget.

Asked whether he would have done anything differently in hindsight, Hand replied that, “I wish we hadn’t changed so many things simultaneously.”

United passengers could have protected themselves by having a printout of their itinerary with their alphanumeric record locator number — always a good idea. That way, if their itinerary disappeared into the electronic ether, an agent would have a starting point for finding it.

And they could have packed a sense of humor. When a whole row of computers shuts down spontaneously, what is there to do except laugh? But many passengers didn’t know about the cutover, or its probable implications, until it was too late.

United says that the situation has calmed and that it’s taking steps to keep things going smoothly. Between now and June, the carrier is hiring another 400 contact center workers, adding to the staff of 6,300 employees who answer passenger inquiries via phone and e-mail. Its all-important handle times have been cut in half, to an average of 10 minutes, which is almost back to normal. (The goal is closer to eight minutes.)

No one knows when the next airline IT crisis might flare up or which airline it will hit. A combined US Airways-American Airlines, which some industry watchers are predicting, is a likely candidate. But if the madness afflicting United in March has taught passengers anything, it’s that there are some airline problems you just can’t plan for.

 

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  • http://twitter.com/johntbaker John Baker

    Could UA have done things differently? Yep. Having said that, they had to balance risk and cost. It turned out that they accepted a little too much risk driving for lower costs on this one.

    Instead, they probably should have gone for a two-step approach. First, transition old UA to SHARES so the ground and call center staffs learn the new system plus their customer base learns the new website without also dealing with the consolidation issues. This also means you’re only effecting half of your customer base. As a second step, you take the two SHARES Databases and consolidate them into a single system. This has the advantages of separating the two pain issues.

    There are downsides to this. Number one is cost as the UA has to maintain two datacenters after old UA transitions until they finish the consolidation. There’s also risk associated with each GDS cutover as old UA has to redirect various GDS links to their new reservation systems twice. There’s also time involved as spacing out the UA move and consolidation would lead to that many more months of essentially operating to separate but equal airlines.

    In hindsight, I’m sure that UA would have done some things different but this isn’t something that occurs every day either.

  • Tomski

    To say this is a disaster is an understatement. I’m  a Million Miler, premiier etc and that doesn’t mean squat with Unitged. I had the misfortune to be fling back from Paris on March when the “seamless” roll over was complete. Not only did the reservation system void existing seating assignements but it then randomly reassignrd them.

     I have a bad right shoulder and reeserved 21D so my shoulder would be protected and I would have the extra legroom. I discovered  Friday night I had a middle seat. I spent over 1 hour on the phone and thought I had this straightened out and the call agent supervisor  promised some minor compenrstaion. When I  arrived at the airport my preprinted boarding pass was taken, my seat was found on a photocoped seat map and I was given a paper boarding pass circa 1977.

    I similar thing happened two weeks ago going to Munich in busiiness class when an aircraft change voided my carefully chosen window seat ( I just had rotator cuff surgery) was changed to an aisle. The basis response I got from all United employees except one legacy Contirnemtral one was tough luck. Herf kind efforets were twarted by a United gate agent in IAD. They sugested I could try to trade my aisle seat with soemone else. Fortunately, I was able to do that.

    I really feel sorry for all the legacy Continetal employees who work hard to make Continental a very good airline only to see it  ruined by being Unitified.

    If I were a Delta marketing guru I would send invites to all former Continental FF ans invite them  to have equivalent status. I think the response would be unbelieveable.
     

  • Charlie

    I was one of the Silver Elite customers who complained about the down-grade in perks – to deaf ears.  I wonder how people get the email addresses of someone like  Martin Hand, senior vice president for customer experience??
    I’ve looked for addresses for people in upper management at United/Continental and have had no luck,  this doesn’t stop me from attempting to contact customer service with my complaints.  Now, do I get any satisfaction – - no, but I feel like I’ve tried; I wish everyone else would “try”, not just complain.  I’ve been a status FF in Continental since they were “Eastern”; do they care, I sincerely believe not.  So much that I’ve decided to stop being a “loyal” customer and start being a “what is the total cost” customer.

    And, yes I do contact customer service to deliver compliments also, though sorry to say that isn’t as often as I think it should be~

  • Biztravel

    Honestly, the problems to come were very visible if anyone in management had bothered to look.   If you listened (in on) old UA agents talking before the cut, it was clear the training had been inadequate, there wasn’t refresher and the simple option to put old UA staff on the CO system in advance wasn’t done.   The laterwould have cost money but would have helped th big time.

  • DCTA

    I don’t know whether the “cutover” could have been avoided, but I really wish it had been!  What a disaster!

  • Susan

    Laugh?  really?  You expect us to laugh?

    Must be nice being catered to so your write nice fluff pieces about an absolute disaster.  Too bad you’re not one of the cattle.

    Continental used to be the go-to airline for shipping pets.  Not anymore.  Now it’s United and their slogan is “We don’t give a damn about you, why should we care about your pet?” 

    United cares about the pay it’s executives get and absolutely nothing else.  It shows.

    And you want us to laugh.

  • Anonymous

    It was an absolute disaster. I waited seven hours on hold to pay for a ticket. I waited five days to get a response to an email. This was absolutely the worst managed technology event in history. Fortunately, they have improved. Last night, dreading the though of calling, I had no choice, but was connected in just a couple of minutes.

  • Anonymous

    We just flew UA roundtrip to HNL. There were 9 of us in one reservation.  Going went well, but coming home, 7 of us checked in while 2 of us returned the cars and came back to check in.  We had paid for 6 bags, 5 were already checked in and the Sky Cap couldn’t get the system to check the remaining bag in without a second charge.  He ended up having to take us to the counter inside which took the agent close to 15 minutes to get this taken care of after 15 minutes out on the curb trying to deal with it.  The Sky Cap said that the merger put UA on CO’s old 1970s system because it was ‘cheaper’ that using UA’s new system…penny wise, pound foolish?  We had allowed extra time for checkin but what stress.

  • Anonymous

    In talking to a number of United ticket counter agents that I know, they all maintain that many of the problems came from two things.  First, a lack of training.  Most of them received less than 8 hours of training spread out over several weeks.  That’s means that much of what they had been shown a couple of weeks earlier had been forgotten by the time they made the switch.  And the second piece was that Shares had a lot of server issues due to the increase in demand.  I also know that the sales reps were all on different pages from one another and frequently didn’t have any answers and the ones that they were giving out turned out to be wrong.  This was especially true of those that came over from Continental.

  • Anonymous

    UA and CO must have learned a few tricks from Microsoft. Roll out a new version (as early as possible to make $$$$$$$$$$ in sales) and then just issue updates to fix [band aid] problems that customers find out about. Unfortunately, UA/CO had a lot of irritated testers.

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  • Anonymous

    I just dealt with UA, on behave of a client.  Good news was I talked to agents in the US, not off shore.  My cilent emailed me from the airport this morning,  He changed his reservation while I was on vacation last week and thought he had waitlisted one segment for an upgrade but the agent at the counter said no upgrade was showing and that she couldn’t handle that.  It had to be done by phone.  So he asked me to step in, which I have done this for him for other trips, before.  Except, not since the meger.  You now need a PIN but he doesn’t know what it is as he hasn’t received it.  CO always required a PIN, but not UA.  Fortuantely the agent read through the PNR history and went ahead and got them the waitlist.  But it was not done like it has been done before.  If both passengers wanted miles taken from their accounts, the PNR had to be divided.  I didn’t want the record touched any more than necessary, so I had all the miles taken from one account.  Too many steps now to handle upgrades.

  • disgruntled UA

    United has no foresight !!!!!!!!!!! the decision to use an antiquated dinosaur Shares computer system of Continental Airlines has caused untold misery to the passengers and to their employees. That was the worst decision UA made in the merger. They tell the employees that Apollo was an expensive program to run so they have to use the Shares system. Utter bs !! Because in order to upgrade and train the hundreds of UA agents on the CO shares would cost millions..It would have been much much easier to train the Continental agents(about 30,,000++) than to expect all 60,000++ UA employees worldwide to learn the old Shares system. They should fire the IT department and the powers to be at UA. In their quest to save millions in the merger, they have lost millions of passengers and business to other airlines..

  • GeorgeM

    UA really let me down last Sunday. I had a simple flight from Palm Springs to LA and on to San Francisco. Sounds innocently enough. As soon as I arrived at my departure gate, I was told it would be an hour late. Given the fact that my connection was also late, I was holding out hope I could still make it. 1 hour turned into 3 and I missed my connection. The reason for the delay was that they had the wrong pilot doing a test flight for some diagnostic equipment check or some such nonsense. Why they had the pilot and why they had to test it to impact my flight, I have no idea. Their fault though. Once I got to LA, the flight they confirmed for me got canceled, then I waited for a flight to SFO on stand by and was passed over then finally got on a flight 2 hours later. I eventually got to SF by 7pm, which means from the time I left my friend’s house in Palm Springs to the time I got home, it was 12 hours total. My Sunday was shot, and my other friend who took a 4pm Alaska Airlines flight got home before me. This is complete buffoonery and totally inexcusable. Of course I complained and of course have received nothing back. I will never fly on United again and hope anyone reading this will take heed of my experience before choosing United.

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