March 2, 2012 at 8:30 AM ET
This weekend, the Continental-United merger is expected to hit a significant milestone that both airlines hope travelers won’t even notice.
In fact, if travelers do notice it, it’s safe to say that neither the airlines nor their customers will be very happy about the results.
In technical terms, it’s called a “cutover,” which is airline geek-speak for the process of transitioning from one IT system to another. On Saturday, the carriers will essentially flip a switch that moves, or migrates, massive amounts of customer data — fares, schedules, seat assignments, check-in and boarding information and more — from United’s Passenger Services System (PSS) to Continental’s.
“It’s basically the brains of an airline,” said Chris Vukelich, who helped manage two cutovers at British Airways before becoming vice president of supplier relations for Egencia LLC. “It’s like turning off a patient’s brain, then hoping it all works when you turn it back it on.”
Recent history is littered with cutovers that didn’t go quite as planned. Perhaps the most infamous snafu took place in 2007 when US Airways tried to integrate the systems of merger partner America West. The result? Out-of-order kiosks, long lines, flight delays and lots of inconvenienced and angry customers.
More recently, Virgin America and Cathay Pacific have suffered IT-migration meltdowns that impacted travelers’ ability to manage reservations, access mileage plan accounts or talk to a reservation agent.
“It can lead to a domino effect,” said Bob Offutt, senior technical analyst for PhoCusWright. “If the kiosks break down, then the ticket counter gets overloaded. If the ticket counter gets overloaded, the call center gets swamped.”
Other cutovers have gone more smoothly. In January 2010, Delta and Northwest merged their IT systems without major mishap despite having to consolidate almost 1,200 unique systems into approximately 600.
“These were very complex systems,” said Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec, “so we took a very thoughtful and deliberate approach to bringing them together.”
United and Continental have also gone to great lengths to lay the groundwork for a successful transition. According to spokesman Rahsaan Johnson, the carriers have conducted four dress rehearsals, successfully migrating the data from United’s Apollo-based system to Continental’s SHARES-based one.
“As in any dress rehearsal, we figured out potential issues that might arise, fixed them and developed procedures in case they arise again,” he told msnbc.com.
The odds of a smooth transition may also be improved as half the United-Continental workforce is already familiar with the SHARES system and teams of United employees have been gaining experience staffing Continental counters. This weekend’s flight schedules have also been trimmed — Saturday is typically a light travel day, which should also help — and extra staff will be on hand at airports throughout the system.
“We’re working and planning for every eventuality,” said Johnson. “This is a big deal for the company, but we’re working to make sure the process is not a very big deal for customers.”
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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.