United’s Reservation System Switch Goes Well With Only Minor Glitches

Mergers/Finance, United

If you believed the headlines, you’d think that United had melted down over the weekend when it finally retired its Apollo computer reservation system in favor of a version of Continental’s SHARES system to form one airline from the customer perspective. But the truth was far from that. The incredibly complex switch went off quite well with only some minor glitches that should be ironed out quickly.

United Sends Apollo On Its Last Mission

I think my favorite headline was “United’s computer chaos” from The Economist’s Gulliver blog. Seriously, guys? A little dramatic, no?

The rationale behind that post was that United ran a poor on-time operation on Saturday, the day of the change. Sure, flights were delayed to some extent to accommodate passengers who were delayed by some glitches, but these weren’t awful delays. I went to masFlight to get more details on what happened.

masFlight has comprehensive flight status information that it can slice and dice in a million different ways. So I asked for details on the United operation from Saturday, and you can see the data here. First off, the combined airline completed 98.4 percent of all flights. That’s not a bad result at all, so there certainly wasn’t a problem with cancellations.

Regarding on-time performance, masFlight reports that the combined airline with all of its regional affiliates had 65.8 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes of schedule (that’s what the Department of Transportation defines as “on time”). That’s not a stellar result, but it’s hardly a meltdown. It’s just a bad day that is fully expected when you make such a massive conversion.

Since the airline settled on Continental’s legacy system, it’s no surprise that the old United operation performed worse than the old Continental operation which ran above 70 percent. But even the old United saw 62.2 percent of flights arrive within 14 minutes. Again, not good, but not terrible either. In fact, it’s probably better that there were minor delays or a lot of people might have just missed their flights.

Reservations Intact
Let’s talk about what’s most important. When the new system went live, all reservations were given new record locators, and the newly-minted MileagePlus numbers should have replaced the old ones. While no work should have been needed by any passenger (the system would still recognize the old record locators if used), we didn’t want to take any chances so we reviewed all Cranky Concierge client records.

Everything was correct. The new MileagePlus numbers were in there. (And when partner frequent flier numbers were used, they were still in there.) All seats were retained, and it all looked as it should. That’s the biggest concern for any system switch – data loss. That didn’t happen here.

Of course, not everything went perfectly, and that’s where many of these other articles focused. So what did go wrong?

  • MileagePlus accounts weren’t all showing the right mileage balances (including mine) right away. Mine was fixed by Sunday and others were trickling in as well. United warned this would be the case and allowed awards to be held until the balances were all fixed. So that wasn’t a big issue.
  • There were check-in issues when people who checked in on the old United system didn’t have their boarding passes correctly registering in the new system. That is obviously a very short-lived problem because it was limited to those who checked in before the switch for travel after the switch. It shouldn’t be an issue anymore.
  • Most of the other issues were with corner cases. The vast majority of travelers wouldn’t have had issues, but I heard some issues with employee travel, some with upgrades having trouble checking in, etc. None were overwhelmingly terrible – more like minor inconveniences that will undoubtedly be worked out.

Now that we have this switch out of the way, life should get much easier for United travelers. There will be no more issues with two mileage programs and codesharing across airlines. Any reservations agent can help with your reservation no matter what. It’s one airline from a customer perspective with only a few minor exceptions.

The Remaining Differences
Where are things still different? There are a handful of airports that still have ex-Continental flights in different places than ex-United flights. You can see the full list of non-combined airports, but most aren’t big issues because they won’t see much connecting traffic between the two sides anyway. It just requires being careful when you drive to the airport in places like Boston, New York/LaGuardia, Kansas City, and San Diego to make sure you’re in the right place.

Possibly the biggest standout is at London/Heathrow where ex-Continental flights are still in their previous SkyTeam home, Terminal 4. United and most other Star Alliance airlines are in Terminal 1, so many connections from Continental flights will require a longer connecting time.

The crews also are still not mixed, but that’s not likely to be noticeable for most passengers. That and other small vestiges of separate airline identities will continue to disappear over time. This last step was the biggest hurdle by far, so it’s exciting to have it behind us with minimal disruption.

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61 comments on “United’s Reservation System Switch Goes Well With Only Minor Glitches

  1. LOL – ceding control to Houston/CO (love it!!).

    The sooner this is done the better. I just wish one day we get some tulips back on those tails :)

  2. “The crews also are still not mixed”

    Mmm, probably a good thing considering the total animosity that each others crews appear to have for each other (sample size of responses n=5 flights, so not statistically that strong, but…..).

  3. My complaint was that the premier line at LAX was poorly understaffed. After 20 mins of not moving in the premier line, I switched to the normal line. It took those that waited in the premier line ~2 hours to get ticketed whereas the non-premier line was ~30-45 mins. Given that United always shits on the normal passenger and tries to pamper the frequent traveler, this was a fail to cater to their target audience.

  4. Our merger/upgrade experience was anything but pleasant. We’ve saved for this birthday/anniversary trip to SE Asia since last year and had it booked in C class on United from YYZ-BKK since August 2011. In January 2012, we were looking at our reservation online and it gave us the opportunity to upgrade various segments to F class for a price. So we upgrade each of our ORD-HKG legs for $1165 each.

    Come yesterday morning, we called United because when we looked at our tix on line it said there’d be a change and we needed to call to “have the tickets reissued”. By the end of the conversation (after the guy had hung up), we’re no longer in F class, they can’t really locate a fee paid without a lot of searching (they finally find it), and can no longer upgrade us back to F in spite of our having paid the money and they’ve left the impetus on us to contact United Refunds Dept to try and get our money back. Ridiculous!! I spent three. THREE. Hours on the phone last night with this gentleman only to be told this in the end. The ridiculous thing is that if I log on to each reservation and print the eticket itinerary and receipt right this very moment, it still shows our seats in F on the ORD-HKG leg and it still shows ‘Additional Fees paid of $1165 for the old ticket #’ further down below the taxes section.

    I feel pretty lost at this point as to how to proceed. I’m pretty much being told to like it or nothing. we’re hard-working folks who take one big trip every 18-24 months. I spend my days as a nurse on the street working wtih the homeless and drug addicted, and my partner spends his days working for a very large bank trying to track down money-laundering and terrorism-related accounts. Is it too much to ask we have an occasional smooth holiday once in awhile?

    1. I’d suggest trying again. As for a supervisor. Then a manager. I know that’s a hassle, but it just might work. Also, if your travel isn’t in the next few days, wait a couple days to call. Let some of the dust settle when people aren’t all flustered and just trying to stay above water.

      You might also consider hiring Cranky Concierge for the trip and let them sort it for you! ; )

      1. That’s not a bad idea!!! (Hiring CC). And letting the dust settle as well might work, too but we’ve had issues with this itinerary since day 1. They’ve changed equipment on us several times resulting in schedule changes, one time resulting in an intinerary that was no longer feasible, forcing us to switch to another airline codeshare and another connecting airport entirely. So the trouble with United did not start here. I wish it would end here, however.

        Thanks for the reply –


          1. Well, this is all fixed. Matt and I both started tackling this and in the end, he got a hold of a refunds agent who was able to restore his reservation to where it should have been. Whew.

          2. They only finally fixed it because I quoted them the list of times the ticket had been changed from F back to C and back to F multiple times. Wouldn’t have had the list without ya CF.

            Thanks so much!

          3. That’s awesome! I’m so glad it worked out for you! Now enjoy the F trip. And send the good mojo my way…trying to upgrade into F on LH using a UA SWU. Never done it, so here’s to hoping it goes through!

  5. My personal experience was as described in the article BUT I know someone who had a terrible time. She is traveling early this week and needed to speak to an agent to clear up something, and was on hold for a total of NINE HOURS. She is a Premier Platinum member, too! I looked at United’s Facebook page, and people were complaining of phone hold times of two to five hours.

    The only thing I don’t like is that, in my opinion, the old United web site was much more professional looking than the old Continental site. Hopefully United will skin over the Continental underpinnings with as much of the United look and feel as possible. Sorry, but to me the web site is just plain ugly now.

    Also I miss the “search by schedule and price” option.

  6. Sorry for the “testing” post, but I had just written something about someone I know being on hold with United for nine hours, and it simply disappeared when I hit the “Leave comment” button.

  7. Granted, it was a complex changeover but Saturday sounded like pure hell at UA, especially the legacy UA hubs. Sub-50% on time departures is a pretty major story IMHO. If I were one of the thousands of people inconvenienced by UA on Saturday, especially at IAD or ORD, I would hope these atrocious on-time performance numbers weren’t glossed over by the media (statistics quoted below taken from an email by travel columnist Joe Brancatelli):

    “With most of the pre-merger United’s Saturday flight schedule now in the books, the numbers are simply atrocious: just 46 percent on-time for departures and 56 percent on-time for arrivals.

    The numbers are even worse for Chicago/O’Hare and Washington/Dulles, two of the pre-merger United’s main hubs. At Dulles, it was 29 percent on-time departures and 45 percent on-time arrivals. At O’Hare, just 26 percent of flights departed on-time on Saturday and just 44 percent arrived on time.”

    1. What I’m curious about is how many flights flew within an hour of their scheduled time. Sure its not as good, but to me is more indicative of the customer experience overall.

  8. I just learned from a friend who is trying to book award travel that the Continental-based system does not currently allow Star Alliance award bookings and will not for several weeks.

      1. Oblivious to all this change, I booked flights using what were originally CO points this morning flying with Turkish & Lufthansa. These guys are Star Alliance, right ? These are the same flights that were available for the last few weeks when I looked up routings.


  9. Ehh, my seat selections for a first class award flight from europe disappeared into the ether and somebody snagged one of the seats I had originally picked such that my wife and I are now across the aisle from each other. All in all though if that’s the biggest hiccup we’re doing well…

  10. The image and name are appropriate. Why would United want to name its reservation system after a spacecraft system which discards almost all of its equipment (including the lunar module) after just one use–leaving just the command module for returning the astronauts? This comes as no surprise to me.

    1. Well, United launched Apollo in 1971. The name Apollo was certainly associated with greatness at that time (and still is today). But it’s gone now anyway.

      1. Unfortunately the new Premier Gold is not as good as the old Premier Executive. You are now 3 out of 4 instead of 2 out of 3 for boarding priority and upgrades. Upgrade booking times are shorter, free baggage allowance less, and access to Economy Plus has been reduced. In reality it is somewhere between Premier Executive and Premier. I’m rather disappointed as I just got my million miles…

  11. Well just like crime statistics, when the number of crimes in a city are down the stats look great..but if you get robbed than the stats are 100% rise in crime!

    I unexpectedly had to fly CO/UA PBI to EWR on Sat 3 Mar….a 100% customer service disaster! No kioscs working, United.com computor system was down with manual check-in(ops system is separate and working.) An hour wait on the phone to my old CO Elite line to get flight info..I hung up(never more then 2-5 minute wait max in the past) and lines of confused passengers and worse, ex-CO ticket counter and gate staff with apologetic, but confused looks on their faces.

    For me March 3, 2012 will be the day the “new united” took over and struck out in the ninth with bases loaded!

  12. I’m in India today and am flying back to YYZ from BOM on Austrian/Air Canada. At Indian immigration to leave the country, I overhead an exchange between two immigration officers that the United flight to Newark still has an CO code in their computer system. Just an interesting aspect to how complex this is.

  13. Since the media likes to make drama they would naturally label Saturday as horrible. They will interview people until they can find the one person out of thousands who had a problem so they can make it sound like the whole company was about to have a melt down.

    You can’t believe anything the news reports these days.

  14. I’ve always booked my air travel way ahead. In the past year if travelling on United through my CO booking, the computer has told me odd stuff which has always gotten corrected before I flew … I suggest that everybody calm down and check into their individual situations next week … or next month … when there’s little doubt in my mind that it all will be fine.

    I feel really badly for the people who are flying now and in the next week or so. If all the non-urgent people had stayed off the phones and the website, it would have been alot easier!!

  15. I flew TPA-IAH-LAS-DEN-TPA beginning on Thursday and returned on Sunday using a mileage award. I did have problems printing out my boarding passes on Saturday, but there is a feature that allows you to send them to an email address and that worked. All the flights operated on-time. Overall, an A+ effort.

  16. I’m waiting to board my flight from DEN to IAD on UA. Longer than usual lines at checkin but nothing outrageous. Yesterday I tried calling to change my award ticket after the united.com system gave me an error following the final step of the switch. long holds on Premier exec #, after an hour i gave up but found an email in my inbox confirming the change i’d tried to make earlier. When i put my CO, now UA, ff# into the phone system it asked me if i was calling about my reservation from Omaha or St Louis on two random dates in June. I have no such bookings!

  17. I fly weekly from the east coast to SMF. No serious computer issues – I couldn’t check in at T-24 but they had it straightened out by about T-16 – the problem is that, once again, I have been delayed several hours due to mechanical issues. I have been flying Unite since late January, and the on-time percentage is under 50 percent. I’m not talking 15 minutes late, either – each time I have arrived there or home more than 90 minutes late. All have been due to MX, including one flight that turned around halfway between IAD-MDT.

    In six months on Delta, in that case BWI-SMF, I only had a delay once, and in that case i was rebooked more than 24 hours in advance, so at least I was at home.

    United’s flights are more convenient to me, but not if they don’t cut down on the Mx delays.

  18. I flew United on Saturday, Sunday, and today, and overall would agree that the transition was managed well given its complexity. Here are my observations:

    1. They’ll have to figure out where the boarding passes rip versus where the details print. On Saturday, I was at a UA location with newer kiosks (the ones that spit out the flimsy glossy paper instead of the cardstock paper); these printouts have the perforation about 2/3 of the way from the left. On Sunday, I had the older kiosk pass, with the perforation about 3/4 of the way from the left.

    In most cases, this isn’t a big deal since boarding passes are rarely ripped anymore due to barcode scanners. On Saturday, though, the board agent ripped everyone’s boarding pass (not sure why) — and the location of the perforation meant that the portion she kept had the seat assignment listed twice and the passenger section of the boarding pass had no seat assignment! Thus, as you might imagine, there was a lot of confusion on-board as people tried to find their seats.

    2. For some reason, on Saturday, the agent had to re-print a boarding pass for anyone with a boarding pass from online. This delayed our departure by about 20 mins.

    3. In my opinion, the new kiosk boarding passes are UGLY — a strange amalgamation of fonts, hard to read, etc. Bizarrely, the smallest item on the whole thing is the destination! They are functional, but not attractive.

    4. I miss the old United kiosk functionality. When you swiped your card, it would instantly (in most cases) bring up your destination without you having to type it in. They are using the old CO system now, which requires you to input the destination and is really SLOW — lots of “one moment please…” screens. Again, functional — just happened to prefer the old UA look and speed.

    5. The agents need to figure out the new boarding process and vocabulary. My agent on Sunday (at DEN) did it perfectly; she used the new process (Boarding Group 1=Global Services; 2=Premier Platinum; 3=Premier Gold, etc.) and it worked well. Today, at ORD, on a full flight to DCA, the agent made no reference to boarding group at all and instead announced, “We are boarding all Presidential Platinum, 1K, Global Services, First Class, Star Gold, OnePass Premier, and Premier Executive.” Huh? As you might imagine, about half the airplane (this is a heavy elite route) stormed the boarding door. And it was the weirdest combination of old UA/CO vocabulary I have heard at any point in the merger and contained lots of now-offically-expired terms (i.e., the new MileagePlus does not have a ‘Premier Executive’ rank). That just kind of annoyed me — systems integration=hard; calling out numbers for boarding groups=not hard.

    6. Is anyone surprised one of the worst performers was Dulles? I find the Dulles operation the worst of the United hubs (only exacerbated by their disgusting Dulles terminal). They cannot even figure out how to have a clearly marked and consistently staffed elite check-in line at Dulles, which doesn’t seem to ever pose a problem at ORD, DEN, SFO, etc.; thus, I have no problem believing that of any United station the Dulles one struggled the most with the system integration.

    7. Finally, un-related to the system transition but still focused on United: on DEN-ORD on Sunday, they played the newest Smisek pre-safety video introduction, which has him bragging about all of the fleet enhancements. In an ironic twist, the video had to be re-started because the TVs and audio on the ancient 757 kept flickering out.

    1. There is one thing I like about the new kiosks compared to the old CO kiosk: no longer does one of the “one moment screens” have a big picture of a CO 777 with, in huge font, “777” across the screen. I always found that odd — here you were, checking-in for your flight on some CO Express crop-duster out of CLE, with the kiosk reminding you of the complete LACK of comfort you were about to experience in comparison with the 777. :)

  19. Cranky-

    Why did they choose Contiental’s Shares system over United’s Apollo? Were there any advantages to one over the other? Has this been written about anywhere?

    1. I seem to remember that it was something about SHARES providing more flexibility and functionality that the airline wanted. Ultimately, I imagine a lot of it was because that was what a lot of the Continental people were familiar with and they’re the ones who really ended up making decisions here.

    2. I happened to be sitting next to a United gate agent on a flight this week, and the reason he gave is that United was renting the Apollo platform while CO owned the Shares platform. Thus, money could be saved on ‘rent’ by using Shares.

      1. SHARES is actually now an HP product. (It was owned by EDS previously.) Many airlines use it, including US Airways which ditched the old US Airways’ Sabre platform for the legacy America West SHARES one.

      2. So explain to me the dumbing down of the “best ff program out there”with the merger as a “silver premier” I have no economy plus booking privileges? Im devastated! After half million miles and 10sI of thousands of dollars. I have no motivation to fly United anymore!

        1. I think UA did the smart thing and realized hitting Silver really isn’t all that hard. You can do it for less than $2000 if you’re really good, so the watered down benefits (to me anyway) are appropriate. As with anything…the higher your status, the better the perks. I guess it just give you a reason to strive for Gold.

          As it is, UA is still the most generous when it comes to premium economy seating and elites. DL requires Silvers and Golds to pay for it (with a 50% discount) and AA will not make it available to their lowest tier at any discount.

  20. The reservation system may have only had a few glitches but the mileage plus information is totally messed up. Been a 1k for many years, usually hitting 2k and my status now says I’m Premier Platinum. Been transferred through their nightmare system for an hour this morning and still on hold. Got sent to a message saying their offices are now closed and was disconnected, even though it’s 10:00 a.m. Eastern time. Finally reached an agent, started my question and she immediately said she was going to transfer me. I yelled NOOOO!!! but it was too late, now I’m back in the recorded hell of United/Continental. The message for wait time said 4 minutes, been on hold for 20 on this last round.

  21. Have been on two flights in March so far… The problems seem to be at the gate
    when they try to get a new upgrade ticket for you….took me 10-12 min to get the new upgrade ticket…. Also it takes 5 to 6 days now to get credit for your United flight on line… It was 24 hrs for domestic and 72 hrs for International flights before this Computer switch… Mergers are so MUCH fun..
    Change is Good…??? :( Plus after 30 years with my United number to switch us all over to Continental Member numbers now… give me a break..

    1. Well, had it gone the other way there would have been plenty of CO fliers complaining about losing their 30 year OnePass number for a long all numeric MP number. Such is life. : )

  22. There are definitely still problems, but mostly aftermath issues, presumably. It took two and a half hours to clean up the PNR records for me, my wife, and son yesterday afternoon for a trip to SFO and back next month. The agent was very nice, and profusely apologetic–it probably did help that I’m a 1k (formerly Presidential Plat with CO). The UA agent–with CO since 1993–had never seen PNRs as screwed up as ours in all his time with CO/UA. It probably didn’t help that the ticketing was through Expedia, with my follow-ups to use CO upgrades. Glad I had the day off yesterday to work on this!

  23. Since the merger it has been impossible to get to reservations and I have left a phone ope, listen to the recordings and hung up after 2 hours. Shame on them

  24. It seems that, all in all, the switch went pretty smoothly. I had read about some smaller airlines making the switch before some of the major ones, which provided United with a sort of disconnected test run. I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that, when it comes to major system changes like this, having no issues whatsoever is all but unheard of. Yes, there are some problems that have been causing people problems, but the increased convenience and efficiency that is just a small time off in the distance will be, some would argue, worth the current frustration. Thoughts?

  25. I’ve been noticing the United customer service phone lines have gone so downhill after the merger. I’ve been hung up on/”disconnected” by the premier line more times than I can count. i guess my requests to upgrade are too difficult? Plus you can’t call in and get something done in under 20 min anymore. They put you on hold for so long.

  26. I was talking to someone yesterday afternoon calling UA and was still on hold after 30 minutes. She picked up another phone and called the same number and the recording told her there was an 8 minute wait. But she was still on hold now past 30mins on the first phone.

    They must be using a standard recording no matter what the wait time.

    1. Having worked in call centers, predicting wait times can be exceptionally difficult. Especially, if you’re dealing with calls that may be very short or very long and the call time is at a shoulder time where not as many people are answering calls.

  27. I happened to be in Phuket when the changeover was made and went through hell changing my Business First ticket to go on to Australia before going back to the Us. It was an unmitigated disaster to be kind. On hold for 30 min. at a time, 4calls, each at lest 1hour, and they still got it wrong. The kicker is that our UA flight from Sydney was delayed for about one hour and the pilot did not choose to try to make up any of the air flight time. So, we arrived a bit late, hustle through customs, (carry-on bags only) and arrive at the connecting flight gate in LAX. Plane is sitting at the gate, all closed up, ten min before departure. About 15 fellow passengers also show up, and no ground agent anywhere to be seen. After 16 hour flight, we’re tired, cranky, and not one person to explain what is going on. Finally a gate agent emerges from the gateway, refused to speak to anyone, and dismissively waves us towards the “United” gate desk. No communication, no nothing, for a $14,000 airfare.

    My point is that it is very easy to tell the Continental personnel from the United personnel. The United people (and my wife worked for them from 1996 – 2006) are just plain pissed off, don’t care, and it shows. The Continental people smile, engage you, and like their jobs.

    I have about 1.8 million miles on the “new” airline, and are completely convinced the wrong people are driving the boat. United people just don’t care, while the Continental personnel are being dragged down to the level of the United personnel. If there were a better option, I’d do it, but as a heavy flier, American sucks worse than United. (1K on my next flight to NRT in June)

  28. One more thing. If you call the “standard” UA reservation line, you speak to someone in India (maybe Phil’s?). Could not understand them, asked for supervisor, told cannot transfer, call back. I did this 4 times, same result, before I used my old CO One Pass Elite number, and it worked. Makes you wonder how the poor non-elite customers ever make a successful transaction?

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