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.

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Obsessed with how companies manage, spend and save money, Jason writes about procurement, trade and supply chain issues @ Spend Matters. He has significant first hand experience developing and marketing technology and services products, has advised numerous companies on sourcing and related techniques as well as M&A pursuits.  In previous lives before tech, he was a management consultant and merchant banking analyst.

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