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United takes a step back in time by adopting outdated system

By   /   Friday, April 6th, 2012  /   21 Comments

United junked an award-winning, state-of-the-art reservation system and adopted a model based on older technology.

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Exactly one month ago, United Airlines flipped the switch on a much-publicized systems integration that was supposed to mark a big step forward in its merger with Continental Airlines.

Aftershocks from the merger continue to reverberate across United and its United Express subsidiary. Operated by SkyWest Airlines, United Express is the only carrier in the region that serves all three commercial airports — Santa Barbara, Santa Maria and San Luis Obispo. United Express flights often provide the most powerful gateway for business travelers to reach domestic and international destinations.

The biggest problem, one that would drive any tech-savvy user crazy, is that United junked an award-winning, state-of-the-art reservation system and adopted the Continental Airlines model based on older technology known as System One. Don’t get me wrong: As a business owner I respect the fact that United saved a ton of money doing it that way.

But going back several generations with a website that’s clunky and not terribly user friendly is asking your customers to do a lot. Flight credits post more slowly. Pricing out flights  is not as transparent.  Reach somebody on the phone? Forgetaboutit. United has admitted that its reservations lines have been clogged—presumably by scads of people who can’t figure out how to navigate the website —and it said in late March that it would add more phone operators to try to hold down wait times.

As somebody who flies several times a month—mainly going back and forth to my house in Colorado on weekends — I can tell you from first-hand experience that the systems integration has been fairly ugly.

I suspected as much when, a few weeks before the big United-Continental systems merger, I got on the phone to make sure my United and Continental accounts were ready to be synced up. A very helpful reservations agent asked me to remember my Continental pin code.  In other words, they were asking me for a number I made up to get access to my account in the 1990s — before the Internet was in common use. Is this any way to run an airline?
In my case, the agent cut me some slack and when I was able to remember enough of my original pin, she said she trusted I was who I said I was and allowed me to create a new one. But here is the rub and the business lesson in the United Systems integration.

For the past few decades, United operated on a rigid set of simple rules — rules that were fully understood by millions of customers, especially those coveted business flyers.
Rule No. 1 was that status mattered most. Rule No. 2 was that the people at the highest status level, 1Ks, got whatever they wanted. Rule No. 3 was that as United forced more interaction with its website, it made pricing more transparent and the interface user friendly. Rule No. 4 was that the pampered status holders got little perks on the web, including a feedback system that got an email response from an actual person.

One big side effect of systems integration is that status levels no longer are clear or transparent and access to fast-track phone lines and emails for feedback has been all but eliminated.
In other words, United has suspended the rules for its business customers, and there’s no sign yet of the old order being replaced with something new. Business travelers are a patient lot — we put up with slightly messy planes, disgruntled crews, lack of clarity in handing out upgrades and, at least for now, old, clunky technology on the Web.

But the bottom line is that over time, the post-integration United will have to show customers that it has a plan to dramatically improve its website. It will also have to create an effective and transparent set of rules for its highest value customers. Or it will put its most important business relationships at risk.

• Contact Editor Henry Dubroff at [email protected].

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  1. Glenn says:

    This is a much better analysis of the problem here:

  2. Ethan says:

    What a piss-poor article. You could learn more doing a google search “Apollo v SHARES”. Did the author do ANY research? There are a myriad of reasons to dump Apollo. Not the least of which are UA sold of the intellectual property rights to it years ago or the company the developed FastRes/FastAir went out of biz so the product has no support.  It is dead end like keeping a fleet of L-1011s.

    He is either a employee of Travelport or a C rate journalist.

  3. Ethan says:

    What a piss-poor article. You could learn more doing a google search “Apollo v SHARES”. Did the author do ANY research?There are a myriad of reasons to dump Apollo. Not the least of which are UA sold of the intellectual property rights to it years ago or the company the developed FastRes/FastAir went out of biz so the product has no support.  It is dead end like keeping a fleet of L-1011s.

    He is either a employee of Travelport or a C rate journalist.

  4. Kat says:

    This guy has no clue what he’s talking about. Shares’s origins do indeed lie in the SystemOne roots from the Eastern days, but it has evolved. His insinuation that it is the same system it was when first created is ignorant to say the least. Out of both carriers, CO has been the one at the cutting edge of technology, as well as the carrier with the newest equipment. The decision was made by the technology experts. The bigger problem lies with the employees’ knowledge of the new system, but in time, that will be ironed out. You can’t be an expert in a new system overnight or in a month’s time, after years of being used to doing things differently on another system. It does NOT mean the system doesn’t work.
    The author of this article apparently was too lazy to do any kind of research or basically only bothered to ask those who resent the changes and know nothing about SHARES. Go back to journalism 101 and learn how to be a good reporter.

    • Tim says:

      Not certain I agree Kat. I work at the combined United, and have been shocked at the rudimentary and unsophisticated systems CO has used in the past. It has been a challenge to convert to the UA systems, but at least in my area the systems are far more detailed, which ends up providing a better product for our customer and in a much more cost effective manner. It is not my experience that CO had better systems than UA, just the opposite. Shares is only one system (but probably the most visible), there are hundreds of other systems used by the combined United.

  5. Herbert L.Woods says:

    I find it interesting when fools comment on subject matter, and do not have the foggest idea about that which they speak. Try doing your home work lest we will understand you contribute nothing. Perhaps the cartoon channel is a better place for your comments. In the meantime, do have a nice day.

  6. Harry B. Lott says:

    I keep seeing comments about ‘retirees’. What do retirees care about their former employer, except that they lost their front-of-line priority for pass travel. Stand aside, let the people who are STILL WORKING get to their well-deserved premium seats. Put your Walmart luggage in the overhead (if you can) take your free coach seat, sit down and SHUT UP!

  7. David Nava says:

    I just flew to Denver – Cancun and back… I did not have any problems… 5 minutes at check-in on an international flight. Services was great. No free food on the plane but, I don’t remember ever liking the food when it was offered in coach. Flight coming back from Cancun was delayed 2 1/2 hours because of early morning mechanical but, I would rather be delayed then not get home safely… Great job United… at least for me..

  8. Joseph Aksamit Jr says:

    I was with that airlines for 31 years. It was crap then and it is now.

    • Tim says:

      If you believe that your employer provided a ‘crap’ product why on earth would you stay for 31 years? What a tragic life you must have had to work at a place that you hated for 31 years. Too bad you did not seek employment with a company you enjoyed and believed in your product, instead you elected to stay at a ‘crap’ company because you lacked the skills to do anything else.
      I hope you are enjoying your retirement, although I suspect your retirement is ‘crap’ as well. Is that United’s fault as well?

  9. KO says:

    The problem is Continental is now calling all of the shots and they made the decision to go with their antiquated computer system called Shares instead of former United’s far more capable Appollo system. We heard is was a cost saving measure, well guess what, they’re paying the price with overtime and new hiring because of the problems now being forced upon the employees trying to deal with the outdated system. This takeover (merger?) by Continental has been one big mess with how they’ve run the airline all the way to how they’ve treated United’s retirees. You think paying customers can’t get any service, ask the retirees how long their telephone hold times are when trying to validate their concerns over medical and other benefits. I just hope Continental doesn’t run the merged airline into the ground, but the public should know that Continental is doing things their way now so don’t automatically blame legacy United because pretty much all that’s left of the old United is its name.

  10. Jessie says:

    HAHA love all the United employees posting comments on here. Do you United employees not understand that YOU were the problem with United Airlines pre-merger. YOU employees are what WE the flying public hated. We can tell the difference to this day between pre-merger United employees and pre-merger Continental employees. While I hope they get a updated computer system at United I really hope the Continental employees teach the old United employees how to do customer service.

    • noreen says:

      obviously you are not a scholar oh wise one!!!!!!!!! If you were you would know that the problem lies in Continentals CEO choosing to stuff an antiquated computer system down united employees and the public’s throats. If you had down your homework oh wise one you would know Smisek was ” quote un quote” a lawyer just months before taking over the largest carrier . You would know oh wise one that he chose to train all the reservation agent for only a few days before this monumental change . GO BACK TO SCHOOL!!!!

    • Carolyn says:

      Spoken like a true Continental employee!! These UA employees are in for the fright ride of their lives, yes many were/are bitter as they have given up 40% of the benefits as salaries, devalued company stock, loss of pensions and flight benefits. The whole time senior leaders took no significant cuts!

      Yes, the Continental employees are teaching the UA employees something; say goodbye to your retiree group insurance, forget ever pass riding and oh yes, you will learn our CO leaders lie too!

      The UA international product is so superior to CO..let’s hope the new regime does not take that product back 30 years like they did their computer system.

  11. Rob says:

    Smisek & Shares “EPIC FAILURE”

  12. Gary Mills says:

    United Airlines has switched to Fred Flintstones computer. They are using a DOS based system that was once used by Eastern Airlines. If all this sounds and looks like the stone aged company that it is, it is so by the design of Jeff Smisek and company. He is not running the company as a business, but is instead playing a game of social misfits that does favors for a few close friends. At one time United Airlines was the largest transportation system in the free world. Today it is a mealy motley mess of crap. No good will come of running this once great company into the ground, but that’s exactly where it is going. The BOD needs to wake up before it’s too late and put the brakes on this train wreck. More responsiable and dependable leadership is needed. Also a historical return to customer service and integrity is in order. This is a company and airline at it’s absolute worst. It can be brought back, but not by continuing down the current path. Serious change is needed NOW !

  13. Lina Reinert says:

    Henry, thank you so much for this article. It sheds light on what really is happening at the “New United” and it is not a pretty picture. The new CEO and his Continental management team are destroying a legacy airline. They all need to be fired. They not only have angered the active and retired employees but the revenue customers are running for the hills. This cutover to the SHARES system from APOLLO was the biggest travesty along with revamping Mileage Plus and the benefits of Active and Retired employees. I pray UAL isn’t headed for bankruptcy 2 with this management team!

  14. Fran says:

    You are absolutely correct in stating what is happening.
    Interview a few UA employees for their side of this ridiculous mess.
    We love our Million Milers, frequent flyers, etc. They have really been ‘abused,’ right along with the employees and retirees

  15. Herbert L.Woods says:

    It seems that this new administration has defrauded everyone including the traveling public, retirees. and current employees. The current employees have many complaints, and share those complaints under anonymity for fear of retaliation. Retirees have been treated unfairly, and kicked to the back of the bus, while treating the employees of Continental more favorable than the employees and retirees of the legacy United Airlines. A petition of approximately more than 7,500 employees and retirees told CEO Jeff Smisek of the unfair treatment, and he pretended that everyone was happy. Smisek, is a person who will not listen to anyone, and is thereby doomed for failure. The Board of Directors need to understand that change is needed, or suffer a decline more devastating. In the meantime, Smisek continues to fly around the UAL system pretending every thing is just fine. He would do the company well by taking off the blinders.

  16. Jake McGoldrick says:

    United defrauded thousands, even tens or hundreds of thousands of premier members who qualified for “silver” status by flying 25,000 or more miles in 2011. United changed the rules in midstream by not announcing prior to Jan 1, 2011 that silver premier members would be deprived of getting economy plus seats UPON BOOKING and be allowed TWO free bags checked in THROUGH 2012! United told me/us about this AFTER we had already qualified for 2012 premier status. This is a breach of contract that the Dept of Justice should investigate and prosecute. United announced that for $499 I/we could purchase annual access to Economy Plus seats or pay per flight AFTER booking. This will suck in hundreds of millions of bucks.
    Had United told in 2010 that they were changing the earned rights effective in 2012 I and many others would have made decisions as informed customers and we could have chosen to fly with other airlines in 2011.
    I hope you can publish these facts of fraudulent actions and maybe even help to pursue some legal action. My wife and I wrote to United but received no response.
    Thank you

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