United to blend airline bookings as Continental name fades away
United Continental Holdings Inc. is poised to combine reservations systems and websites this weekend, moving the world's largest airline closer to integrating its United and Continental units.
The step is among the most visible changes since the merger that created the carrier in October 2010. Once the shift is completed before dawn in the U.S. on March 3, Web traffic for both United and Continental airlines will go to a redesigned United.com as the Continental name fades away.
Blending reservation platforms is among the most complex tasks in airline mergers, and mistakes can cause havoc. Airport kiosks for US Airways Group Inc. stopped working in 2007 when its booking system was combined with America West Holdings Corp.'s, causing flight delays and lines of passengers while repairs took more than a week to finish.
"If it doesn't go well, it's going to set the tone for how business travelers feel about the airline as the kinks get worked out," said Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Atmosphere Research Group LLC in San Francisco, who previously worked at Continental and the former Trans World Airlines.
Continental's CO code on flights will disappear after the March 3 technology switch, as all United Continental flights start using United's UA code, said Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for the Chicago-based parent company. Frequent-flier accounts will be put in one plan under the United MileagePlus name.
Pilots at both airlines have used the United call sign in exchanges with air-traffic controllers at airports such as New Jersey's Newark Liberty International, a pre-merger Continental hub, since the company received a single operating certificate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in November.
United Continental was formed with the all-stock tie-up between former United Airlines parent UAL Corp. and Houston- based Continental. While the holding company keeps alive both predecessors' names, the United brand will be the survivor.
Out of the public eye, different pieces of the predecessors are being retained. Continental's Shares reservation system by Hewlett-Packard Co. will be the unified system as United's Apollo is abandoned.
United.com and Continental.com will "go dark" in the early hours of March 3, with a goal of having the joint system running before passengers begin checking in for early-morning flights that start about 6 a.m. New York time, Johnson said.
"Four full-scale dress rehearsals" helped the airline get ready, including having legacy United employees shadow their Continental counterparts to learn the new system, Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek told analysts and investors on a Jan. 26 conference call.
United is "confident about the cutover" and "exceedingly well-prepared," Smisek said. Still, there's a way to revert to the old systems if there are hiccups when the cutover occurs, he said.
Website users will notice that United.com looks different, although functions such as online checkin, bookings and frequent-flier redemptions "will exist as they do today," Johnson said.
"If a passenger checks in on Friday night for a Continental flight, when they show up at the airport on Saturday, the system should recognize them," he said. Hundreds of extra gate and customer-service agents will work over the weekend to ensure a smooth transition, Johnson said.
"I'm impressed with the level of preparation they've done," said Harteveldt, the analyst. "But there may be something they could never have imagined that goes wrong and if that happens, how quickly can they fix it? What you don't want is a major problem at a major hub that cascades over to other parts of the system."