United-Continental airlines merger hits turbulence

  • Article by: JOHN BOUDREAU , San Jose Mercury News
  • Updated: March 14, 2012 - 8:08 PM

Customers are complaining about problems with the airline's recently merged reservation system.

SAN JOSE, CALIF. - Congested phone lines created by the merger of United Airlines and Continental Airlines caused Jill Lucas Mertely to break down in tears after spending 18 hours on hold over four days as she futilely tried to book flights to Hawaii using mileage points.

"It's been absolutely horrific," said the unemployed Felton, Calif., bookkeeper, echoing the experiences of other customers across the country. "It's nothing I've ever experienced."

United, which merged with Continental Airlines in 2010, shifted its entire reservations system to Continental's on March 3, creating headaches for travelers and dinging the brand of the world's largest airline. Though the airline said it was prepared for the switch, new glitches keep appearing nearly two weeks later, said Joe Brancatelli, who operates JoeSentMe.com, a website for business travelers.

"Up until the day before [the systems switch], United said, 'No problem. We have everything covered.' Total arrogance," said Brancatelli, who said his inbox is overflowing with complaints from road warriors.

In a message posted on its website on Monday, United noted that the conversion is the largest in aviation history and that "the vast majority of our systems are functioning as planned." The company said it is working to reduce wait times, adding, "We apologize if you have had difficulty with your travel planning, and we are grateful for your patience."

United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said the company hired an additional 600 agents to handle the flood of calls, much of which he attributed to glitches with the online system and customers confused about its new website, which uses Continental's old site as a template. Most of the problems have been tied to incorrect passenger information on the airlines' websites, such as upgrades not being listed or itineraries getting jumbled, he said.

"Operations have been smooth in terms of checking in, boarding, flights departing on time," Johnson said. "The issues we are having to work on are customers' abilities to get the information they want online so they don't have to call."

Marc Casto, president of Casto Travel in San Jose, said the airline's reservation conversion has been smoother than similar moves at other airlines. "They moved over hundreds of thousands of reservations overnight while planes were still flying, and everybody got to their destinations safely," he said.

Brancatelli said United appears to have offended its most important customers -- business travelers. The system didn't recognize the status level of a number of elite travelers and other high-mileage travelers who upgraded seats online using the old United system, and then discovered the changes weren't recorded on the new one.

"When you check in online, it says call United. But you can't call United. The waits are three, four hours, or they hang up on you," he said.

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