American and US Airways are Doing Their Reservation System Migration Differently and It’s Paying Off

American, Mergers/Finance, US Airways

When it comes to airline mergers, there is no bigger single milestone from a traveler’s perspective than the migration to a single reservation system. After that point, all reservations are in the same place and under the same airline code. It’s really when the other entity stops existing from a customer perspective. American and US Airways, having made it look easy so far with a drama-free frequent flier program combination and achievement of a single operating certificate, are now looking to complete the trifecta with an unblemished record. They’ll have it far easier than United/Continental or US Airways/America West did back in the day. Here’s why this is different and why the chances for success are extremely high.

When you hear about a reservation system migration, you probably get an uncomfortable feeling. After all, the biggest, most recent mergers have not gone well on that front. Look no further than the US Airways and America West merger to see a job gone wrong. Then look at United and Continental to see a job gone wronger. While there were a lot of issues with that one, the biggest was probably with upgrades for frequent fliers.

Since American and US Airways already did their frequent flier program merge without incident, that won’t be an issue here. What you see today with American is what you’ll see in the future. This is all about getting US Airways bookings and tickets off of the US Airways reservation system and on to American’s.

There are a lot of bookings living in the US Airways system today. But American is using what it calls a “drain down” to make sure it has to migrate very few of those. I had a long chat with Maya Leibman, Chief Information Officer, and Kerry Philipovitch, SVP Customer Experience, to get into the weeds on how this is all going to go down.

This situation is a bit unique in that American’s AA code survives as does its Sabre reservation system. With United/Continental, it was United’s UA code that survived and Continental’s SHARES reservation system. With US Airways and America West, it was the US code and the America West SHARES system. For this reason alone, American and US Airways will have a much easier time.

Total Universe of American US Airways Bookings

Let’s attack this using percentages. Think of the total universe of all American and US Airways bookings in both reservation systems as 100 percent. In both the United/Continental and US Airways/America West mergers, all 100 percent of those bookings had to be migrated. With United/Continental, any United bookings had to migrate over to SHARES. And any Continental bookings had to migrate to the UA code living in a different area of SHARES. That’s why you had to get a new confirmation number regardless of whether your booking was with United or Continental before the merger.

With American, since the AA code and the legacy Sabre system live on together, that means absolutely nothing changes with any of the bookings and tickets that are on American today. With that, we can already eliminate 60 percent of the total American/US Airways bookings from having to migrate. That leaves just the 40 percent of bookings, those on US Airways in the legacy US Airways system, to worry about. But American is cutting that down much further.

American Bookings Don't Migrate

American has already started to soften the blow by asking travel agents to issue tickets on US Airways for travel after October 1 on American ticket stock (001, for those who speak that language) instead of on US Airways ticket stock (037). That means even if you have a reservation on US Airways, your ticket will already be an American ticket and will exist in American’s system. But this is just the appetizer. The real work begins when the drain down starts.

When exactly is that? We don’t know yet. All we know is that the migration is expected to occur in the fourth quarter of this year, and the drain down begins 90 days before that. That means the drain down could begin as early as July. Considering American’s track record in this merger so far, I’d bet we’d see the drain down begin soon after the 4th of July weekend and then the cutover would occur in October. (You don’t want to do this during Thanksgiving or Christmas.)

So, what is it that happens on this July date when the drain down begins? American will put out a huge schedule change. The schedule change won’t effect anything within 90 days of that date. It’ll be business as usual during that time. But 90 days after that date, US Airways flights will no longer exist. All bookings will be made on American from that point. (The US Airways website will just point you to for travel after that date.) So if it’s July 12 that the change occurs (random guess), then October 10 would be the day that US Airways flights disappear and reservations stop being made in the US Airways SHARES system.

Once that schedule change is done, the drain down begins. Looking at the booking curves, American knows that about 90 percent of bookings are made for travel within 90 days of the booking date. That means that when US Airways stops taking new bookings for October and beyond as early as July, 90 percent of the bookings on record will be flown before the US Airways system disappears.

Most US Airways Bookings Will Be Flown

That means all travel booked after the cutover date would have to be on American Airlines with an American Airlines confirmation number and an American Airlines ticket in the American Airlines reservation system. So when that cutover date arrives, only 10 percent of the bookings that existed in the US Airways reservation system (4 percent of the combined airline bookings) will need to be migrated. So, 4 percent vs the 100 percent in United/Continental. That’s tiny.

This can all be handled in advance. Once the schedule change occurs, travel agents will be able to reissue their tickets and get things moved over to American long before the cutover date. If all goes according to plan, this should be a non-event. If it doesn’t go according to plan, this could get ugly. After all, American is committing to a hard cutover date when it does that big schedule change 90 days out. There is no going back once that’s set.

You’d think if there are issues, it would lie in the hands of airport agents who can’t handle the new system. But that’s highly unlikely. All the US Airways agents use an overlay called QIK which sits on top of the US Airways system. American took QIK and had it sit on top of the American system so nothing will change for US Airways gate agents other than various policies and procedures that may not yet have been harmonized. (United agents, meanwhile, had to learn native SHARES commands, which was a disaster.) But the agents will all get trained on these few differences.

This is a pretty slick way of handling the transition. The way they explain it, it’s hard to imagine this going wrong. In fact, it should have almost no impact at all on the traveling public.

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43 comments on “American and US Airways are Doing Their Reservation System Migration Differently and It’s Paying Off

  1. From the way the frequent flyer account transition went, I would expect this to go smoothly as well.
    We had US Airways reservations / tickets using a US Airways companion certificate and I was nervous when the transition date was announced
    However the change occurred, our AA ff account numbers magically appeared on the reservation and miles from US Airways were combined.
    I was impressed with how smooth it was.
    Flights had no problems. Most flight attendants remembered it was an American flight now.
    We were on united during that merger and many seemed to make a point of saying it was a former continental crew.

    1. It seems that a few of the old continental crew STILL make this announcement today! I always want to extend them a middle finger when they say it.

      1. Why would you do that? The Continental crews are almost always the friendlier and more professional and ones on the merged United/Continental Airlines.

  2. At least what they are doing sound like it makes sense, keeping the computer system of which ever airlines code is going to be kept.

    If they did this as you guess in summer and most flights are taken in 90 days, that still leaves the big Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years rush of travel in danger of being screwed up doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until after the end of year holidays just to be safe?

    1. David SF – That’s why I expect they’ll try to get this done in October so there’s plenty of time before the rush. If it pushes into November, that’s when I think we might see them considering waiting until the new year. But if they’re confident to start talking about this now (they did a big conference call with reporters before I spoke with them individually), then that means they’re on track here.

    1. Yes, and that is something that made the whole thing even easier! QIK (at US Airways) already worked on top of SABRE in the old US Airways days, so they needed to resurrect that connection and make some updates and voila – the current US-SHARES toolset works with US-SABRE and AA-SABRE.

    2. Larry – I’m sure it’s not a perfect transition since American’s version of Sabre has its own unique quirks, but I can imagine that made it much easier to connect it up.

  3. Cranky, I don’t remember if the AA mergers with Reno Air and TWA went smooth. Do you remember?

    1. Fake Bob Crandall – I have no idea. Those integrations were before I paid close attention to res system migrations. The only one that went well since I’ve been paying attention was Delta/Northwest. And those guys were both on versions of Worldspan so that had to help.

      1. C’mon, he’s 79 years old. Give him a break. He might *not* remember how the TWA merger went. No need to assume he’s fake…

  4. To me the AA/US merger is going quite well compared to the Continentalization of UA aka the UA/CO merger.

  5. QIK is the concern I have.

    Having dealt with both airlines recently, extensively, I find the US agents have far fewer options and access to info than their AA counterparts that are on native Sabre.

    Will the US agents learn native Sabre after a QIK-start or will they dummy down the AA agents, taking away alot of necessary information and tools that they currently have?

    1. davidlc3 – American agents will continue using native Sabre for now and US agents will use QIK. The idea is to develop something that will work for the entire airport environment in the future, but it may or may not be a version of QIK. Sounds like they want to build in more functionality before switching to that.

      On the reservations side, American decide to retain its existing Acorn system. All US agents will lose QIKRes and start using Acorn. That’s a big transition, but they are already pulling people out of the US Airways side and doing training. So as the demand for US bookings drops further once the drain down begins, they can accelerate the training. (They’re also hiring over 1,000 people in res so they have the ability to handle the volume as it shifts.)

  6. Glad to see the merger process so smooth for AA/US. The only other airline merger that I think went this smoothly was the Southwest/Airtran merger, but it took about twice as long…

    Not a fan of Dougie, but I guess after you get a few mergers under your belt you learn a thing or two about perfecting the process!

    1. Jon – Well that one was easy because they did the ultimate drain down. AirTran stayed separate until the very end, they just slowly moved flights over to Southwest over time. So there was never any migration. Once AirTran disappeared, its system disappeared as well.

  7. As a software engineer, this design was clearly thought through by engineers. Doing a “overnight switchover” approach, like United did, is recipe for insanity with zero margin for error that no good software engineer would advocate.

    Effectively here, the big area for error is the massive schedule change. If that goes wrong they’re in trouble. Pretty much everything else can be handled incrementally or case-by-case. The QIK/SABRE layer is the other area that’s ripe for troubles in the future, but at least it still isn’t an overnight switchover. I do hope they eventually unify all the systems, because that’s more maintainable long-term.

    I suspect Parker learned from US/AW.

    1. BigDaddyJ – I guess the good news is that if there is a problem in the sked change, they have 90 days to make it right before anyone has to fly on it. That has to be a huge relief. Certainly beats the whole knife-edge cutover thing.

      Parker and team has definitely said frequently that they learned a lot from the last go around. I think combining that knowledge with a CIO who is extremely capable makes a big difference. Oh, and they said they relied a lot on discussions they had with Sabre. While merger migrations may not happen all that often, Sabre has done a ton of migrations for airlines who convert from one system to Sabre. And a million different tactics have been tried so Sabre has seen it all. The drain down was apparently highly recommended.

  8. The other genius thing which is sort of implied, but not stated directly is that this will affect a minimal number of passengers, and the airline will get a minimum of 90 days to migrate the bookings to Saabre.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the migration plan for the bookings is going to be taking a few steps at a time. Migrate a random 5% of the bookings, check them, if there are problems fix the migration code, then migrate another 5%, check those. Wash rinse and repeat until that 4% of bookings is all migrated.

    The other little devil in the room is that operationally there will have to be that cut off in 90 days for gate agents, automated kiosks and counter agents. I’m sure they’ve tested the software upgrade for the automated kiosks, but as I recall this was a pain point for the America West/US Airways merger..

  9. You say all of this should have “…no impact on the travelling public.” Probably so, but few of us, well, maybe just me, everytime I run into a problem with the airline, which is nearly every time I fly, I don’t know what system it is that is making things difficult. As they say, we don’t know what we don’t know.

    The other day, with UA at IAD, things went awry with the schedules, so off I go to customer service for re-booking. Wonderful people, even if I complain about them all the time, but soon something comes up to the effect that “the system isn’t working.” It’s not “down,” it’s just that the “system” won’t let the person do what she wants to do. One person checks with another and the discussion revolves around that this system (whatever it is) is a mess, and, yes, I had the had the same training you had. I’m going to try the “old” system. And, on and on! Blame it on “transition,” I guess!

    My go-to rant on these things is that it probably isn’t the systen that’s having a problems, it’s that you are trying to force my res into a box of 9,000 rules and regulations that shouldn’t apply in most of the situations at hand. “Do you or don’t you have an open seat to re-book me on that flight. Well, you say my fare has to be booked into this or that inventory, and yes I had been given a complimentary up-grade on the connecting flight, and now we can’t find upgrade inventory, and when did you book your flight, and you have a 21-day advance ticket, not refundable, etc., etc.” Hello, I don’t even have a ticket that shows my fare code (my eTicket, I guess, has a fare code on it, but the “system doesn’t allow ticketed passengers to actually see, feel, or touch those things, and the 12 screens of fare rules, which were once there but now have disapeared in “cloud” space. Of course, it’s the system’s fault.

    BTW: Cranky, just wondering:

    When you say nice things about airlines, like this post, do you ever fear that that airline will someday use it as a defense in a court case, a DOT hearing, whatever? I just got through reading Airlines for America’s (signed by the general counsel) Sept. 29, 2014, 381-page response to DOT’s NPRM (Docket DOt-OST-2014-0056 on transparency of airline ancilliary fees and other consumer protection issues. Nice to see you quoted several times, with some of your blogs (the entire post and some of the commentor comments) reproduced–“I’ve argued for un-bundling and now I’ll argue for re-bundling,” 9-23-13, and “Why you so rarely see web fares in the U.S.,” 8-25-14.

    Did they get permission from you to reproduce your blog and the comments? Should they have, or is anything on the internet simply in the public domain and can be used by anyone, however they see fit?

    Regardless, today’s post was interesting, as usual.

    1. jaybru – I don’t ever think about if airlines will use it for one reason or another. Nobody asks me for permission, but I’m guessing you don’t need that to file with I should probably look into that.

      1. CF, thanks for your response. Sounds about right. When you blog, I guess you have to accept that you are opening yourself up to just about anything.

        Now, the commenters, it’s not quite so clear for me. But, when you put something, anything on the internet, what can you expect? Like, google your cranky username and “cranky flier” and there you are with all your (my) idiotic rants I didn’t exactly plan for all the world to see.

        Never really discussed all the aspects of this during my college days. Oh yea, there wasn’t an internet, was there! But, punchcards were fun, anyway! And, you could drive five hours, each way, on two-lane highways, down to DC, to something called a city ticket office and get, what if I recall correctly, was a timetable!

      2. IMO I don’t see a big issue with the government taking your blog posts into account and referencing them in their new regulation write-up. At least they are taking your opinions into account and not ignoring them (and how many people actually read the goverment’s regulatons anyway). Now if Time magazine starts reprinting your blog posts verbatim in their magazine you might want to investigate copyright protections. The (I assume) FAA incorporating them into regulation commentary isn’t a big concern IMO. The fact that they take your opinions into account may actually get you a nice cushy job on the FAA board (with a government pension and lifetime fringe benefits) at some point in time.

  10. Great post as usual, Cranky. Question for you. Do you know if AA intends to merge US reservations beyond the cut-off date (say those bookings for flights after Oct 10) into AA reservations during the drain-down period? I don’t know why they would need to wait for the cutoff date to transition those reservations since the flights won’t take place until after the drain-down period. Thoughts?

    1. Justin Does – I can only assume they’ll do it beforehand. That would definitely make the most sense. But it’s not a question I had answered.
      I’ll see if I can get one.

    2. Justin Does – Ok, I followed up with American on this question. The migration will occur at different times depending upon where things are booked. Things that are booked directly with US Airways are expected to migrate earlier. But travel agent bookings won’t be forced to migrate for awhile. They want to let travel agents handle the ticket reissuance themselves so they keep control of the ticket. But at some point, they’ll have to force the reissue if the travel agent doesn’t handle it. Either way, it’ll all be done before the cutover actually happens. The actual cutover itself should be easy.

  11. So what happens with a reservation made in with flights on US metal scheduled for after the 90-day transition period? I assume nothing, aside from a possible timing change and a switch to an AA flight number, since the itinerary already has an AA ticket number and PNR? Curious, as I have a trip scheduled late this October that falls into that category (AA ticket number, AA PNR, but with 2 segments on US that also carry a separate US PNR).

    I guess the only thing that concerns me somewhat is that apparently the US airport agents are only going to receive one week of training. I hope that’s enough. At least the three largest combined hubs (DFW, MIA, ORD) are existing AA stations, and thus no learning curve, but I could see processing slowdowns because the agents aren’t familiar with the new system at CLT/PHL/PHX causing some short-term issues. Then again, I’ve happily eaten crow as to the smoothness of the merger so far, so hopefully that continues.

    1. MeanMeosh – That one’s easy. Since it’s an AA ticket in Sabre, that already exists. The flight number probably won’t even change since most US/AA flight numbers are synced up now. But there will be a schedule change where it shows the flight as being operated by AA and it will reside in the existing Sabre record.

      As for training, there’s just not much to train. The system will look the same to US agents for the most part. So a week of training should be plenty.

  12. Isn’t this pretty much how WN and FL integrated? I didn’t understand the details, but it sounds similar. Brett, is there any way you could do a comparison of the WN/FL and AA/US integrations?

    1. Jim – Not really the same since Southwest and AirTran didn’t integrate at all. Basically, Southwest ran Southwest on its ancient system and AirTran on its own system. Slowly but surely, Southwest just shrunk AirTran. It didn’t convert already scheduled AirTran flights into Southwest flights.
      It’s just that every time Southwest extended its schedule, there would be fewer AirTran flights and more Southwest flights in it. Last December, when the last AirTran flight operated, the reservation system disappeared as well. So there was no actual integration.

      Same thing happened with international flying. Southwest started using a new Amadeus system to handle its international flying, but it did that from day one of having any international flights. So it never had to migrate there either. In the next few years, the Amadeus system will take over all of Southwest’s domestic flying as well. When that happens, it’ll be the first migration that Southwest actually has to do.

  13. You can’t seriously believe the accounts were merged without incident? Ever since it happend I have flown American four times on eight legs and they have yet to have my name appear on the upgrade list on either the gate screen or the app. My schedule is so fixed I buy tickets far in advance and hence get upgraded between 70 and 75 percent of the time. I’m zero for eight right now due to this “minor” glitch. They say it is because I bought the tickets before the auto upgrades were put in which was done to facilitiate the merger of the two systems. Didn’t work then, doesn’t work now.

  14. Cranky – I think you might have forgotten, or not known, that all bookings via the US site have had both AA and US PNR’s since maybe the beginning of the year. So it looks like there’s a booking both in Shares and Sabre. If that’s the case, wouldn’t all they need to do is make sure the dupe is in Sabre and then delete it from Shares?

    1. PHLLAX – That’s news to me. It should only create a Sabre booking if there’s an American segment in there. But you’re saying even all-US segments booked on have a Sabre booking?

      1. I thought so, but I just checked our reservation for August which was purchased on US for US metal and it’s just 1 pnr showing now. i swear it had 2 when we booked it.

  15. I work as a reservations agent, and your description of the draindown process is clearer and more concise than anything provided to us internally so far. Thank you. I am now officially less stressed about what’s coming up and what to expect – especially when they really do “flip the switch” and we move to one single reservation system.

  16. Do any of you people actually fly? I just completed purchasing a ticket on AA/US and it was truly the worst purchase experience of my 64 year life. I ended up having to purchase from a third party because I could not get the website to work. My flights are half on AA and half on US Air and I can’t choose seats on a single site. I needed two sites and 2 flights still show no way to choose seats. Further, my reservation does not reflect the choices made on one site on the other. The price does not match what I paid. As far as I can tell, there is total confusion about who is operating the flight, how much they are charging, and where I am sitting. Absolutely the worst e-tailing experience of my life.

    On the other hand, perhaps it is smoother than the others…. now that’s a distressing thought.

  17. I thought US AIRWAYS bought AMERICAN AIRLINES, but it feels like the reverse. American does not allow anything special for status members anymore. It is not worth booking with them. I go out of my way to book with US AIRWAYS, and even changing my meeting times so I can rearrange my flight so my company travel site will allow me to pick the higher US AIRWAYS/AMERICAN ticket price, but it is not worth it anymore. I get lousy seats, am not allowed to pick exit rows anymore without paying, and get no special treatment at all. I am beginning to despise the merger between US AIRWAYS and AMERICAN.

    It is much better, easier now to just choose another airline. American and US AIRWAYS forget who and what made them what they are today. Businesses pay for most of the travel in this country and if the business traveler does not get some special treatment, the business will find an airline that they can get something from.

    I live in Phoenix and had some loyalty to AMERICA WEST, then US AIRWAYS, now AMERICAN AIRLINES, but I cannot justify it anymore, there is no reciprocal loyalty.

    NO MORE. It does not benefit me, the business, or the families anymore. The airline does not care if we stay or go, so we will go and try and take as many friends and family and business partners with me. I have expressed my concern and my issues before with no response, so i highly doubt I will get one now.

    In will advocate my corporation redirect travel to other airlines.

  18. I am a little more than a cranky flyer, I am a very reluctant flyer. I am tall and cannot sit in a cramped seat for hours on end any longer without pain, plus I have no A$$ left, so it hurts my rear end to sit for so long with my knees up to my chin and a LARGE person who is flowing into my seat so much so that I can’t move.

    I flew for over 20 years with the US Air Force and I know a thing or two about the FAA and the rules the airlines try to enforce and how most are BS and some of the rules themselves are BS (for instance I have NEVER seen an aircraft crash, deviate from course or malfunction due to a cell phone. Think for a minute, if an aircraft was that susceptible to a cell phone signal, the entire aviation industry would be in danger? It is not an issue!!! If it was, it is an aircraft requirement not a passenger requirement and don’t you think the FAA would ground every aircraft if it could be damaged by a cell phone?)

    As a frequent flyer with status on several airlines, i find it less and less likely airline will upgrade. It is no longer about loyalty or customer satisfaction. I find that in todays world, especially on the new American Airlines it is pure GREED. I have status on American and I find that they no longer care if customers are happy or not as long as they pay. They charge for pillows, blankets, and even leave seats empty in first class rather than bump frequent flyers. As part of the merger between US AIR and American, it is really difficult to understand who bought who. I was a loyal US Air Ways member, but after the merger, I lost most of the perks I use to get with US AirWays, for instance when booking a flight, as an elite member, i could choose an exit row AND get on the standby list for First class when I booked my flight. This encouraged me to book early and it benefited the airline by flights booked earlier. But the NEW American Airlines, that option is now DEAD. The earliest you can try to get an exit row without paying for it is 24-48 hours before the flight.

    Recently I took a trip between Dallas and Phoenix and as a frequent flyer I got an exit row confirmed two days before the flight. I double checked a day prior, and at the gate, i again confirmed i had an exit row seat, and when I boarded and scanned my ticket at the gate, the alarm went off to validate that I am willing and able to assist in an emergency. BUT, the aircraft seat assigned WAS NOT an exit row seat and was one behind. If I had been told, i could have changed my seat or used pints to upgrade, but the airlines failed and it felt like they deceived on purpose. I wrote the airline and they sent a canned response about not being able to control acts of god and other non relevant items. The response was more insulting than the failure/lie on their part.

    At this rate, it no longer benefits to be a frequent flyer or on a loyalty program. I would go out of my way to find the US Airways flight even when t was more expensive. Now it is not worth it, i gain nothing. I might as well choose the cheapest, Delta and United are by far the cheaper than the New America.

    For all the advice here, non of it requires a frequent flier program to be successful, actually, if you read carefully into this article and many others, the more people on these programs the less special they are and they least likely they will benefit you on any flights in the future.

    I for one, think that if we can get Congress to pass a very strict Passenger Bill of Rights so we no longer are at the mercy of the airlines to interpret or imply that FAA rules dictate how customers should be treated. I mean really, why do we have to agree to work for the airlines to get a seat in an aisle that has more legroom and leads to an exit. If is TRULY a safety issue, then remove the seats and have it fully open and eliminate the airlines ability to make money off an item that they are expecting you to work for. I think if the airline was faced with the choice, they would rather let you sit there for free than give up that revenue, which if true, means it is not about safety but rather about the revenue (GREED)!

    If we had some passenger rights, some hard rules in place that truly protected passengers you would see the airlines change a few of the things that treat us like dirt when we fly. Included in this Bill of Rights congress needs to hold employers accountable for forcing employees to fly under these conditions. It is one thing for a company to force you to travel for business, but then state how you will fly, what kind of seats you can purchase and how you cannot buy upgrades, different class of seating for lag room, etc. If this Bill of Rights protected the flyer both from the airline and the employer, then you would see changes by the airlines, if not just because it is a law, but corporations that deal with airlines and need to send their people on business trips would get pressure form them as well if the Bill of Rights meant they had to allow their employee to fly in comfort.

  19. I found this article today, just two days after the cutover was completed, and I’m quite impressed how close you got to the actual process, including just missing the date by a week.

    American seems to have learned many lessons from the past merger, and while I don’t like the trend towards really dense economy class cabins that Parker is pursuing, they do get props for a relatively trouble free merger.

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