United Airlines has a “serious mess on its hands,” in the words of one travel seller, and travel agents are miffed. “Our agents are going through hell,” said one.
In the wake of United’s transition to Continental’s SHARES passengers services system last month, agents are reporting exceedingly long call hold times and a plethora of other issues.
Though United’s merger with Continental and its initial cutover from Apollo to SHARES went relatively well, since then it’s been one headache after another, agents told Travel Market Report.
Help is on its way
But United said the long wait and hold times for both agents and customers are being cut dramatically and more help is on the way. (See sidebar.)
United is closely monitoring the call volume and wait times, spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.
For the executive accounts desk, where United takes agency calls, currently the average wait time is “longer than it should be – about 15 to 20 minutes,” he said.
“We completely understand the frustration. A lot of these agents are dealing with large groups and complicated itineraries.”
The average time for consumers to reach a live agent for a domestic reservation call is 5.7 minutes, according to Johnson.
“That’s still longer than the standard, but it’s come down a lot. It was 10 minutes a week and a half ago, and every day we shave some time off.”
Agent view: ‘unbearable’
And frustration it is. “This is the biggest mess I’ve seen in 30 years,” said Steve Lincoln, owner of Lincoln Travel in Bridgewater, Va.
Lincoln had reported a smooth transition immediately following United’s migration to Continental’s passenger services system, but now United is “just unbearable,” he said. (See story, “United Res System Cutover: A Bumpy Ride,” March 5, 2012.)
Lincoln said he contacts United’s group department frequently, because most of his business consists of small study-abroad groups for universities. Lately, the hold times have been ridiculous, he told Travel Market Report.
“It makes me cringe when I have to call them. Last week alone I probably logged about 11 hours of hold time trying to get through to the group department.”
Jennifer Wilson-Buttigieg, co-owner and co-president of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York, agreed. “Hold times are still an issue and frustrating to frontline advisers,” she said.
Lincoln, who complained to United, received an email on Monday apologizing for the long waits. The email said that United was “averaging 20 calls on hold at a time, with an average wait time of 1.45 hours.”
Economy Plus difficulties
Agents also complained about difficulties booking Economy Plus, United’s extra legroom seating. Agents used to be able to book Economy Plus in the GDSs, but new links have to be built to the SHARES system, so the seating is currently unavailable in the GDSs.
“For clients who are willing to pay for Economy Plus and who are not status flyers with United, we now have to go to the United website, and it’s much more time consuming,” said Hilton Smith, a frontline seller at Los Angeles-based TravelStore.
Being forced to make bookings on the United website also costs TravelStore booking credits as there’s no way to distinguish an agency booking from a consumer booking on the website.
Another issue is that frequent Continental bookers are unfamiliar with Economy Plus, including who is eligible for it and how to buy the seats.
It’s frustrating for clients who don’t understand why their agents are having trouble getting them the better seats, agents said.
Also, not all Continental aircraft have been retrofitted.
“The biggest pain for me is the adding of Economy Plus seats on former Continental aircraft,” Rick Ardis, owner of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford, N.J. said. “You don’t know which ones have it and which ones don’t unless you visit United.com.”
Lucy Hirleman, CTC, president of Berkshire Travel in Newfoundland, N.J., described a “horrific experience” in which she spoke with two different reservation agents, after waiting 40 minutes on hold for each. Both res agents gave her incorrect information about booking Economy Plus seats, she said.
Finally, Hirleman turned to a travel seller at another agency for help, and the agent walked Hirleman through the process.
“UAL has a serious mess on their hands,” said Hirleman.
The cutover to SHARES also has resulted in lost reservations, PNR changes, and other issues that have made ticketing time-consuming, according to both Lincoln and Smith.
“There have been issues with people trying to upgrade and seat assignments being dropped,” Smith said.
Lincoln said he’s had problems with reservations, record locator numbers and even fare codes being changed.
A recent incident turned out to be “the icing on the cake” for Lincoln. “I had to email a passenger list over to United, and the United agent abbreviated one passenger’s name from Kathleen to Kate. Because the names didn’t match I couldn’t get any of 32 tickets to issue.”
That incident, the most recent of many, prompted Lincoln to book his newest student group on another carrier without even offering United as an option. “I just don’t have time to deal with them,” he said.
Glimmer of hope
Smith said he’s starting to see improvements. Wait times for status members, for instance, have normalized. And he’s seeing fewer problems with existing reservations.
Lincoln also saw some positive change. “It was a little better yesterday,” he said on Wednesday.
Nick Verrastro contributed to this report.