United Airlines Should Be Ashamed at How Their Switchover to Continental Systems Has Failed Fliers

The past two weeks have been a disaster for United travelers. Even though United is one of our larger suppliers at Spend Matters/MetalMiner and our general experience has actually improved in recent years, our entire team feels let down by how poorly United has managed its transition to Continental's ticketing, web, upgrade and related systems. As background, at the beginning of March, United made the transition to the systems of its recently merged/acquired partner, Continental. And across the globe, frequent flyer chaos, even for top-tier flyers, has ensued as a result.

The only saving grace has been the dozens of employees who have been extremely apologetic and empathetic throughout the failed system migration. For them, we are thankful. But this observation comes with one caveat: higher-tier frequent flyer status has enabled us to work with their best local staff through problems -- the great flying masses have likely had to deal with offshore call centers with significantly less empathic team members and even longer hold times than we've faced.

Before highlighting a number of specific incidents around how United has done a near perfect job of annoying its best customers, it's worth calling attention to what United actually replaced in their systems migration, at least from a customer perspective:

  • Web-site and ticketing systems -- all new. The new interface is significantly less user-friendly than the previous systems, in our view. Moreover, website response time has gone up between 5-20X from the previous site (loading pages can now take 15-20 seconds in numerous cases). In terms of user friendliness and incorrect information shared, for example, the system will show seats available in first class for an upgrade or purchase from an existing record when none are actually available.
  • Email updates and alerts -- The entire messaging infrastructure has changed. Curiously, we're finding those old contact phone numbers and email addresses in the systems are getting SMS and email notifications of gate changes and the like now as well (not just the updated and correct contacts).
  • Seat waitlist and upgrade system -- all new. Incidentally, United had an awesomely transparent system before. You could see exactly where you stood on a waitlist or upgrade list on a mobile application, on the web or at the gate (without ever having to ask an agent). All this is gone, except a kludge between the old United mobile app and Continental's system, which has only worked periodically since the changeover for us.
  • Frequent flyer awards and ticking process -- all new as well, from the interface to the rules applied (e.g., a premier traveler who previously qualified for Economy Plus can now get his guests into Economy Plus without a fee even if they are flying without the person who sponsored the ticket with his miles -- at least for now).
  • Kiosks at airport -- same hardware, entirely different software with sometimes incompatible print drivers (Bill Gates must be behind this one -- more in a minute).

So the entire customer and agent ticketing, change, check-in and all related systems experience is entirely new. In theory, this shouldn't be a bad thing. After all, United opted for Continental's systems over its own. But the execution of the changeover has been a complete disaster, based on our own personal experience. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • Inability to cancel a (refundable) ticket online. With two hours to go before a flight this week, we tried to cancel a ticket online for which we had not yet checked in so no need to "un-check" (something that took 30 seconds with the previous United site given the identical circumstance). After trying to cancel the ticket, a screen popped up saying to call United to complete the transaction. We called the Premier (Platinum) line and a voice said the hold time would be 45 minutes to cancel the ticket. Fortunately, someone picked up within 15 minutes and was able to complete the cancellation before the other flight took off. But 15 minutes on hold compared with 30 seconds online is inexcusable.
  • When checking on the status of a system-wide upgrade for a US to UK flight, it took 35 minutes to reach an agent on an early Sunday evening after an upgrade had disappeared from the ticketing record online. The agent confirmed the disappearance, and for one reason or another (she wasn't sure why), she could not add it back in. There was some trace of it buried deep in the ticket record, but we were told it would not clear at the airport. However, after getting to the airport, there were three business class seats open by the time the plane started boarding. After explaining the case to a very kind gate agent and waiting for everyone else to board, she granted an upgrade as an exception, which took a few minutes of furious typing in the system before the flight closed. She said the new system left them completely unable to even "sell me an upgrade" at the gate let alone process an upgrade record from the system.
  • During check-in processes that require any special requests (confirming a waitlist status, checking on the upgrade queue, etc.), United agents at check-in and gates were not trained in the new system and had to place calls to Continental staff to come and fix things to get answers. We have observed this at both United hubs as well as other United destinations.
  • Lack of technical and process integration between Platinum/1K phone lines, United Clubs, ticketing/check-in and gate agents. Whenever an in-airport request was made, the person who could not answer the question would initially direct the passenger to call another phone line or "use the United Club" at which point the passenger would then be redirected to the same person at check-in or the gate agent.
  • United kiosks printing tickets without frequent flyer numbers, with incorrect boarding groups and even incorrect flight numbers and times (in addition to odd characters which were impossible to make out).
  • Overhead displays in the airport and the online systems would show multiple flight numbers with slightly different arrival and departure times for the same flight (e.g., scheduled arrival times that were off by 2 minutes).
  • Inability to book a seat in Economy Plus (or get a seat assigned in Economy Plus) even when going through a corporate booking system for 1K flyers. Getting the problem remedied required a 45-hold time with an agent (for a top-tier flyer).

All in all, United's changeover to Continental's system has proved an absolute disaster aside from the employees who have represented the airline so well -- in front of customers faced with challenge after challenge. Yet even smiles and empathy will not go far enough. In part because one upgrade did not clear as it should have for a refundable ticket, one member of our team took matters into his own hands and simply walked over to a Southwest gate for an alternative flight and canceled his United ticket. I suspect we'll all be doing this more often unless United fixes things quickly and makes amends for all the time its most profitable customers have wasted simply trying to get from Point A to Point B in the same manner that they used to.

- Jason Busch

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Voices (16)

  1. United1K:

    UNITED SUCKS … I have been a 1K for 10 years. There is no reason to stay loyal to a company that doesn’t give a damn about their customers.

  2. Anonymous:

    um…. UAL (parent company of UA) acquired Continental….

    "On October 1, 2010, UAL Corporation (the parent company of United Airlines) completed its acquisition of Continental Airlines and changed its name to United Continental Holdings, Inc. Although the two airlines remained separate until the operational integration is completed by mid-2012, as of that day both airlines were corporately controlled by the same leadership. On December 22, 2010, Continental Airlines merged operating certificates with Continental Micronesia. All Continental Micronesia flights were then branded and operated by Continental Airlines."

    If you follow the news in the last few years, UAL was talking about acquiring US Airways, from 2008 – 2010. But eventually closed the talk. UAL had considered acquiring Continental in 2008, but eventually closed talks. But after the talk ended, Continental left SkyTeam and joined StarAlliance (2008). Talks resumed for UAL and Continental in 2010. After judicial and shareholder approval (July, 2010, August 27, 2010, Sept 17, 2010) …. Oct 1, 2010, UAL acquires Continental. read it.

    And yes, United modern system, both interface as well as operating system in the check-in and flight gates is a system which they pay a monthly fee to use. Continental owns their system and platform. That’s the main reason why they’re changing over. Although from both the employees and customer standpoint, the United platform (at the airport; website interface is personal preference) allows access to all airlines and flights within the same airport. Continental’s platform can only pull data from their own database. Been flying both airlines for 20 years. Have talked to countless employees from both airlines. They have given me the same storyline. Both before the merger and after.

  3. Karen Peterson:

    A gate agent told me that the reason United chose the Continental system was because Continental owned its ticketing system while United paid a monthly fee…stupid reason to make the choice. She said they had returned to greenscreen technology! Not only did i experience the problems described above with Economy Plus but my seat was changed when I was checked in automatically…to one right next to the toilets!

  4. John Olmstead:

    This is not a Continental and United merger. It is a Continental takeover and ruination of United. It is United in name only. None of United’s systems were adapted. If you think what they are doing to the cutomers is bad, take a look at what they are doing to their employees and retirees. It is disgusting and a real shame. I hope Jeff Smisek is proud of himself. He is a real piece of work.

  5. SM Follower:

    The secret is to go to continental.com – everything works well and no changes from the past except for the logo 😉

  6. pk1k:

    You should also mention the "shrinking" mileage between cities. Most mileage distances have been reduced by 3-7 miles, which overtime adds up! So far ZERO communication about this post-merger change. RIP UAL

  7. 7:01 PM CT:

    20 minutes on hold on Friday late afternoon/early evening … premier executive … can’t change tickets online. Error. what has happened to the old home-town chicago airline? The old website that worked? The call center that picked up in 30 seconds?

  8. corporate travel manager - anon:

    Yes. The answer is yes.

    Question: will the past two weeks of United travel chaos for our staff factor into the additional discounts, systemwide upgrades, executive GS / premier status memberships and rebate programs we structure into our next negotiations?

    Southwest, AA and Delta could not have gotten a better corporate travel Christmas present in March.

  9. Rick Porter:

    Make no mistake, this was a Continetal takeover. From cockpit an cabin proceedures to an overly complicateed reservation system. to maintenance proceedures. Continental all the way. United is essentially in name only.

  10. Cynthia Simmons:

    The disaster is caused solely by former Continental CEO Jeff Smisek’s decision to adapt his former company’s antiquated (ca. ’80s) reservation system rather than United Airlines’ modern, user-friendly system…a cost-cutting measure. By alienating UAL’s best customers that cost-cutting is an exercise in futility…they are switching to other airlines.

  11. Philip:

    I was a newly-minted Continental Gold member when the transition became official, but you could already see that United was going to ruin the best airline out there. "Let’s Get It On"… lol (I write this as their website takes three minutes to load)

  12. Jason Busch:

    I loved that guitar video … and it worked!

    I think you raise a point worthy of serious exploration — and the discussion of what to automate should also include supplier interactions as well as customer interactions. The major break-down with United these past two weeks was made incrementally worse by hold-times on the phone that were absolutely nuts. In a drive to automation, United did not have the bandwidth in reserve to address an influx of non-online inquiries.

    I think we should both explore this topic together, especially on the supplier side, as investments to support the automation of interactions have lagged 5-6 years from the CRM/customer side, so there are great lessons we can apply as procurement geeks before we make the same mistake as our sales/customer service counterparts.

    Few lessons I see?

    – Flex capacity matters (real people) when technology fails
    – Hard wired integration outside the cloud will always be a nightmare when trying to add new nodes or change out the guts
    – Communications — up, down, with customers, with suppliers. Over communicate and invest the time to keep everyone in the loop. Finger pointing helps no one. Invest in a central means/hub for communication

  13. the doctor:

    In a nutshell, it seems that too many companies are placing too much emphasis on technology to "automate" and "streamline" customer interactions, and, as a result of one failed implementation after another (see SI’s recent posts on Home Depot and Best Buy), customer service is going to hell across the board.

    Do you agree? And how should we take this topic up?

    Technology can never replace Talent, and systems can never deliver the service a real person can.

  14. the doctor:

    It wasn’t ashamed when it broke guitars,
    so why would it be ashamed now?

  15. Jason Busch:

    That’s about the only benefit I’ve personally realized since the changeover in the systems. Everything else has been a train wreck. From basic response time and load balancing from a server perspective to failures of various integration layers in the systems, I can’t imagine a more textbook case of an IT failure. The only thing keeping United in the air these past few weeks and not having its customers who spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (each) defect are the front-line employees. That says something, but heads should roll in IT.

  16. Philip:

    The frequent flyer awards and ticketing process you describe was in place with Continental for those who currently qualify for Economy Plus. A great feature in my opinion!

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