American and US Airways Choose the Better Reservation System, But Process to Combine Could Take Two Years

One of the biggest issues from a customer perspective about the American Airlines-US Airways merger is the computer system that will manage the reservations process, from ticket purchase through to check-in and boarding.

It’s one of the easiest things to screw up. When America West and US Airways merged, the airline went with the cheaper system the former had used — much to the detriment of customers and to airline sales. I chose to fly the weekend of the airlines’ integration and found lines wrapped around the Ft. Lauderdale airport, including a 45 minute first class line wait. The airline had recommended checking in online, but online check-in didn’t work and neither did kiosks.

Problems persisted for weeks, but the legacy of the choice lasted much longer. US Airways couldn’t even sell international partner flights for some time, they saved money but limited their revenue too. The system never worked right from a customer perspective either, the upgrade process to this day doesn’t work seamlessly on US Airways.

When United and Continental merged, they too went with the cheaper system which they ‘owned’. They saved software license fees but degraded the customer experience.

The initial combination meant hours-long wait times on the phone, disappearing reservations and miles, and an upgrade process that still doesn’t work seamlessly. Indeed, they still also manage to cancel out partner award tickets when ticket numbers don’t get passed through properly to their partners.

There’s the initial combination that is always a challenge, and then the ongoing functionality of the system — both of which matter.

Delta and Northwest were certainly not without problems, but going with the system used by the larger Delta helped.

On the day the merger was announced, Doug Parker said he understood this lesson. But it wasn’t actually decided — and I said that the reservation system choice would be an acid test for customers in my USA Today op-ed the week the merger gained Department of Justice approval.

Now the choice of reservation system is official, they’re going with the better Sabre system (ironically it was Sabre that US Airways ditched when they hooked up with America West).

And there’s also a clear recognition of the challenges involved in doing the transition right.

I’ve been expecting that American and US Airways would combine into a single airline sometime in late February or the first weekend of March 2015. Apparently the reservation system integration process may take “up to 2 years.” We’ll see what that means for actually combining the airlines and frequent flyer programs into one.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. A couple of things…

    First, both SHARES and Sabre are based on the same, identical infrastructure (TPF mainframe). There is no better or worse from a reliability perspective.

    Second, AA uses a very old ‘version’ of Sabre, just as US uses the basic core of SHARES. The difference is that US has a GUI overlay (called QIK), AA does not. It’s common knowledge that learning green screen systems like Sabre are much more difficult. However, AA is banking on the former US East agent remembering native Sabre from 6 years ago. We’ll see.

    Third, Continental did not own SHARES, nor did it own the licenses to SHARES in the 2000s. I’m not sure where this myth came from. CO had SystemONE back in the day, and was sold to EDS and Amadeus in pieces. For a time CO did have direct control over its development, but this was gone by the time the UA/CO merger came around. The only licenses UA retains are the functionalities paid solely by CO before 2012.

    Most people blame SHARES for everything relating to IT that goes wrong with UA. In reality, UA (and CO) has taken a lot of functionality off SHARES, preferring to do it in house. That is where many of the issues arise, especially when it comes to IROPS. Did AA make the right choice? I think so, but time will tell, and it’s good to have the whole story to understand the decisions.

  2. It should be noted that during the NW/DL merger there wasn’t really a migration of systems. They both used Worldspan which is why that particular transition seemed to easy. Anytime you merge complex systems, you have serious challenges, no matter how much you plan.

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