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.
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 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 aa.com 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.
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.