As a long-time frequent flyer on United, I had a front row seat for their merger with Continental. This was one adventure that for which I didn’t make a reservation and a trip I didn’t have the option to skip. With years of miles behind me, I wasn’t about to start over with another carrier and was actually at first excited to have so many more hubs and overseas destinations. At first…
It has been a rocky ride as even United admits. You probably don’t need to fly on United to know, as the news and social media have had an unending supply of travel horror stories. We had many of our own and one that was epic enough to write about this past Christmas.
A missed connection
The United and Continental merger could have been made better through the use of technology available when they made their plans to merge. Instead they’ve suffered a PR black eye and paid out enormous sums to their most loyal flyers as a way to apologize the problems that occurred.
It isn’t a cultural problem. United’s people are just as dedicated as the other major airlines. The biggest challenge was technology. If either airline had invested in infrastructure technologies prior to coming together under one roof, it could have been faster, easier and wouldn’t have alienated their most important customers. Let’s look a a few things they could have used that would have had an enormous impact.
If United or Continental had an infrastructure that allowed information to flow on a bus between discreet systems, they could have added or replaced parts of their infrastructure in pieces and over time. Instead, they went with a Big Bang approach and an enormous cutover this past March that brought them mostly to a standstill for an entire weekend and has been up and down ever since. Such a backbone makes replication of critical data much easier and the system much more resilient.
This backbone would have made the merger far easier, but would have also allowed the new United to have an excellent platform that would allow a modular approach to creating new capabilities around mobile, social and analytics. It would allow them to do better real-time work and to use a private or public cloud to make operations far more efficient. It would certainly make customer service, self-service and automation of manual work much, much easier.
The data spine described above would also speed United’s work to become an event-enabled enterprise in the same way leading airlines like Southwest have. Operations and customer service will be greatly served by systems that watch for key patterns to emerge real-time, where problems can be mitigated and potential problems avoided. Baggage services are already being managed this way elsewhere.
Making two into one
Likewise, if United and Continental took the time to map key processes within each of their airlines, they could have had a governed way to move to a single, unified process as the changeover occurred. Those maps would be the basis for finding ways to improve operations, improve compliance/security concerns and to automate work.
The same process maps that would have made the transition so much easier from a process management standpoint would have been an excellent way to train everyone gradually and electronically. The training would be easily updated every time business processes changed even after the merger and could have been sent to the employees as tracked notifications as change steadily occurred. Instead, they had visibly frustrated employees using paper instruction books for months after the new system came online. With the transaction volumes and number of employees that perform manual work, it is hard to understand why they didn’t do this.
I’m about to take a flight later today to the UK and France and I’m glad to see that most of the merger kinks have been worked out. Unfortunately, rather than this merger being an opportunity to create the best airline systems in the world, the new United is just now reaching the level of customer service and operations of three years ago. It was an enormous missed opportunity that in the end wasn’t about cost.
The good news? It isn’t too late. If United stated down a path to implement an information bus, business events, process and a few other systems, they could see enormous positive impact in months and be a new airline in one year. The software isn’t terribly expensive compared to the alternative and this consulting was free. Let’s see if they take my advice…