@United – You Suck! How IT System Changeovers Have Real World Consequences


Executive Summary

– United/Continental IT Changeover Causes Bedlam in IAD
– Chaos confounded when neither organisation knew who was supposed to be doing what
– Many flights delayed, including BOTH afternoon flights to Newark
– I’m out $110 for unexpected hotel stay in NJ
– I’m losing TWO FULL DAYS of my time in Oslo (that’s the part that really kills)
– United/Continental agents (except one) made DMV agents look good in comparison
– United refused to take responsibility for what was clearly their fault


Yesterday I got to IAD (Dulles airport) three hours early for my international flight.  I got my dose of radiation and personal violation at security, and made it to my gate with more than two and a half hours to spare.  I sat at the gate, and there was no gate attendant.  Half an hour later, there was still no gate attendant.  An hour after that, there was no gate attendant.

I noticed this of course, but it was difficult because the terminal was bedlam.  There were a lot of people around who were trying to get customer service because apparently the ticketing system was down and they were issuing tickets manually.  Every customer service agent was blaming the IT changeover whereby Continental and United were merging their IT systems.  Sitting next to the customer service desk was an interesting experience as I watched people fight for what they thought should be theirs (having paid for a service) while the customer service reps fought for just a tiny bit of sanity.  They (the customer service reps) did as best they could considering the circumstances, but they were clearly overwhelmed, and since the IT systems clearly were not cooperating it made their jobs that much more difficult.  I found myself wondering (and tweeting) what genius decided to cut over IT systems on one of the busiest travel days of the week.

About half an hour until the flight, we finally got a gate agent when one of the customer service reps noticed that there wasn’t one.  Over the next three hours, we would get five different gate agents, but their purpose was only to serve to tell us that we weren’t going anywhere.  (There was confusion as to which company – United or Continental – was supposed to be staffing the gate, from what they were saying.)  Of course, each gate agent also reminded us that since the plane was oversold, they would happily give us vouchers if we were willing to take a later flight.  Airlines seem to be the only companies that can routinely sell things they don’t have and get away with it.  No one was willing to do that because everyone was trying to get to a different airport to go on their REAL flight.  Never mind that they really didn’t have any real idea of what was happening other than that because the systems on which they relied weren’t working.

The plane we were to take arrived at the time it was supposed to take off.  We were told there would be a delay, which was obvious at that point, and that we would leave after a quick turnaround.  After half an hour, we were told that the crew was not present.  Imagine that!  There are only two things that an airline REALLY has to do, and that’s have planes, and people to fly them.  No one knew WHY the crew wasn’t there, and no one knew WHERE the crew was, nor who was supposed to find them.  Eventually, someone tracked down a pilot, and we got on the rinky-dink plane to take us to EWR (Newark Liberty).

We took off at 1745, a full 2.5 hours late.  We arrived at EWR  at 1825, but of course by the time we taxied to the gate and got off and I made a MAD DASH for my connection I had missed it.  To make it worse, even if I had had the time, EWR is asinine in that all three terminals are separate from each other, so if you leave one terminal to go into the other YOU HAVE TO GO THROUGH SECURITY AGAIN.  Considering that EWR is a hub for international flights you’d think they’d have solved this problem like just about every other airport that I’ve been through, but apparently not.

That’s when the real fun began.  After the customer service rep figured out I had to go from Terminal A to Terminal C to try and catch the 8pm, I went to the customer service desk to see an agent.  The agent wouldn’t even try to put me on standby for the 8pm flight to Oslo – they had oversold the flight again!  So even though I’m an existing customer who has partially utilised the services for which I paid fees, I was unable to even TRY to get on standby.  She then promptly told me that there were no flights out until Monday.

I told her that was unacceptable, and then she “discovered” a flight to Frankfurt that I could take and then connect to Oslo which would get me there on Monday, only two days late, instead of Tuesday, three days late.  Then I tried to figure out what I was going to do for staying overnight in Newark, and the rep told me that there was nothing that she could do because the disruption was related to weather.  AS IF!  The IT hiccups had already been picked up by the news. Random people on Twitter knew it was related to the IT merger.  Yet the lady at the desk insisted it was weather!  She was extremely rude, and entirely unhelpful unless I was forceful and adamant with her.  (That’s a tricky game to play in the airport, too, because you have to be rude enough to be effective without the possibility of getting so rude as to have “security” get involved.)  Never mind that weather should STILL be a legitimate reason to put someone up.  If you contract to deliver services and don’t FOR WHATEVER REASON you still have to make good.  Economists call these “macro-environmental factors” and every other business in the world has to account for them.

So then I asked where my luggage was.  She rudely told me that I it was already out-of-reach and that I couldn’t get it because they were processing it for my flight tomorrow.  If I had to stay overnight in Newark, NJ, I wanted to be able to take out my contacts, brush my teeth, shower and change, and so I told her that they needed to get me my luggage!  Of course I had to go all the way back to Terminal A to get that, since that’s where I came in.  Only they didn’t have my luggage, because it was already being processed to go on the new flight tomorrow.  I went to the United baggage claim, and I have never seen more unprofessional people in my life – outside of the DMV – which is exactly what came to mind.  There were three women, two of whom were screeching shrilly at each other and the third, who was new, sitting at her desk.  The first two literally walked by me as if I was invisible on several occasions while they fought to figure out who was going on their break while frustrated customers stood around trying desperately to figure out where their luggage was.  There was a group of people whose luggage was literally in sight but locked, and so they couldn’t get it – that took a back seat to figuring out breaks.  There were people from Canada who were forced to stay in NJ whose luggage went on without them (or so they thought).  That took a backseat to figuring out breaks. &nbsp
;Customers generally took a backseat with the two women who were figuring out breaks, while the new trainee sat at her desk.

The younger of the two women got to go on her break because she claimed that she needed to take medicine or that she would get sick, and that “if she wasn’t sick she’d be back”.  She was never to be seen again.  The older, shorter woman wearing too much makeup proceeded to make a series of screechy phone calls to finally look for the key to unlock the luggage of the people who at least knew where their luggage was.  I went to the third women to see if she could help me, and she turned out to be the only reasonable person there.  It took her a while (for which she apologised, being new) to track it down, but after two hours I finally had my luggage.  Her name was Rita, and her efforts on my behalf to get my luggage carted over from where ever it had been proved to be the only bright spot of the day.  I think if United had more people like her, flying might not be such a miserable experience.

I’m sure that much of this is not new for people who have experience flying.  It’s not all that new for me, except for the missed connection part.  (I’ve had my share of luggage mishaps over the years, but never have I missed a connection before.)  What makes this especially irritating to me is that I’m missing two days of my limited time in Oslo, and that United would not take responsibility for what was clearly their issue, and especially when someone decided to do a full system changeover on a busy travel day, instead of on a Tuesday or whatever day isn’t peak.  I have experience in IT and am getting a Masters in both Information Systems and Business Administration, and one of the first things we learned in COLLEGE (let alone grad school) is that you don’t switch over a system during peak service times.  It’s just a bad idea, and all the above should reinforce that for anyone who hasn’t yet learned that lesson.  I’m looking at you United.