American Airlines has spent nearly two years preparing to merge its reservation system with US Airways' setup. A critical test of its success comes Saturday, when it hopes to complete the task without disturbing flights, or passengers, and the US Airways brand becomes part of airline history.
Meshing ticketing systems is the most technically complex part of an airline merger and carries the most potential to disrupt flights and annoy customers. Airlines operate on massive amounts of information, and almost all of it is computerized. The constantly changing reservation system is a particular challenge, because it has to handle millions of passengers choosing from among thousands of flight and fare combinations, in addition to booking, boarding, baggage, and loyalty program details.
That’s why the world's largest airline—which closed its merger with US Airways in 2013 as it emerged from bankruptcy—closely studied what worked, and failed, in prior "cutovers" at other carriers. It has been “testing the heck” out of its systems for months, said Maya Leibman, chief information officer.
Here are five questions, and answers, to consider if you're flying American or US Air over the next few days.
Is this going to be a nightmare?
American has done a lot to avoid just that. It began moving US Airways reservations over to its system 90 days before Oct. 17, leaving only about 10 percent to be migrated on Saturday. Some airlines have made the whole transition overnight and run into trouble. United struggled with technology snags that created long lines and delayed flights for three days in March 2012 when it combined reservation systems with Continental. US Airways and its passengers suffered through more than 10 days of similar problems in 2007 as it blended systems with America West.
How many boots have they put on the ground?
In June, American cut 200 flights from its Oct. 17 schedule at the US Airways hubs of Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Charlotte and increased airport staffing levels more than 20 percent. It has deployed to US Airways hubs more than 80 American airport agents, 350 IT techs, and 500-plus “cutover captains" to make sure their stations are ready.
Do you have your flight information handy?
Make sure you carry the six-digit record locator that's printed on your reservation and links you to your travel itinerary. During the transition, your last name won't suffice to find your reservation.
Need to talk to an agent?
As part of its preparations, American said, it spent 1 million hours training 50,000 employees on reservation and software programs. The airline set up a "command center" and 23 satellite offices that are open 24 hours a day from Oct. 14 to Oct. 27 to help resolve any trouble. If an airport agent seems confused, there should be someone he or she can ask for help.
Are they sure this will work?
Pretty sure. The work on other technical systems that passengers depend on is already done. American finished merging the operations that oversee the airlines' loyalty programs, cargo operations, revenue accounting, and various fare classes months ago. It said it has conducted six full-scale tests with nearly 5 million mock reservations and checked systems and procedures on more than 30 regional flights. American stress-tested 9,000 computers and airport kiosks, along with printing boarding passes and baggage tags.
It declined to disclose the cost of all these preparations.
“Our No. 1 goal for the cutover is to make sure the customer experience is as seamless as possible,” said Kerry Philipovitch, an American senior vice president. “The burden of preparation falls on us, not on our customers."