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USAir Asks Fliers: ‘Can we Get a Hallelujah?’

USAirways switched over to a new computer reservation system last week, combining its system with America West’s on a new platform. It was a bumpy transition, at least if you were a passenger. USAir’s president called it “largely successful” as passengers waited in 3-hour lines and more than half USAir’s flights arrived late.

USAirways switched over to a new computer reservation system last week, combining its system with America West’s on a new platform. It was a bumpy transition, at least if you were a passenger. USAir’s president called it “largely successful” as passengers waited in 3-hour lines and more than half USAir’s flights arrived late.

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But what’s interesting is the note USAir frequent fliers received this week explaining why things didn’t go better. It’s an example of a relatively recent trend in corporate PR — trying to “speak” like a real person would. In this case, the letter contains slightly jarring lingo for a form letter to customers, including phrasing like “slogged,” “ugh,” “dummy,” and my favorite: “can we get a hallelujah?” There’s also a bit of whining. Why didn’t the system conversion go better? Well… “How much time do you have?” asks USAir’s VP of sales & marketing. Actually, none. Solve the problems, don’t complain to your customers about how hard they are to solve.

Personally, I prefer crisp, elegant, and straight-forward communication to faux-chatty. The full text is below — see what you think.

Dear USAir Dividend Miles Member:

Here we go, possibly the most important Merger Update we’ve sent so far. In this update, we’ll review the top issues affecting you, our Preferred members — yes, our most important customers.

The top issues to review are the results, so far, from the big Reservations Migration and some improvements we’ve made to your First Class upgrade process. There’s a lot going on, so let’s get right to it.

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Reservations Migration to SHARES. The good, the bad and “why move to this Reservations system?”
Where to begin? This was a huge deal, as expected, and it didn’t go as well as we would have liked in some regards — and better than we expected in others. This is one of the most enormous undertakings any airline can undergo, so much so that in some cases airlines have taken out full page ads to apologize for complete meltdowns. Please indulge me while I quickly rattle off some of the accomplishments made by a group of several hundred US and EDS (SHARES parent – and by the way it stands for Shared Reservations System) after 18 months of planning:

• Everyone on our team is now on the same system. That means no more transferring at Reservations.
• A single Preferred Upgrade process across the system (details below).
• Combined ticket counters and queues at airports. Tell the taxi driver “US Airways.” No more America West.
• Combined kiosks for all flights. No more “East” and “West.”
• Faster Web Check-in at usairways.com that lets you pull up your reservation using your confirmation number or Dividend Miles number.
• A whole lot of back end systems that you don’t want to know about – like the back room of a sausage factory – just became a lot cleaner.

A great big thanks to all of you who asked for these improvements and stuck with us as we slogged our way through the merger process. As we’ve said before, this is the stuff that makes airline mergers hard, and if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

The Bad
As with any change as big as this one, we’ve hit a few bumps, a couple of sinkholes, and there are some important issues that you need to know about. We’ve repaired much of the early trouble, but there are still some lingering issues. Here’s a real “inside baseball” detail that explains the root of the majority of the problems we had. We encountered “out of sync reservations,” which means that when we migrated the seven million reservations from Sabre to SHARES, approximately 1.5 million of them didn’t “sync up,” meaning that passengers and agents can’t do much easily — like check in for a flight. The result was that many systems that otherwise were ready to go became bogged down with lots of these reservations that couldn’t be processed except by hand. By now we’ve whittled down the number of “out of sync” reservations closer to a normal level, and continue to reduce them daily. Also, the great news is that any new reservations you make will not end up out of sync and won’t be affected.

Other issues, many with ties to the out of sync problem:
• If your reservation is out of sync, you may have trouble checking in online or at the kiosk. If you have trouble with Web Check-in using your reservation number, try using your Dividend Miles number. If that doesn’t work, call Reservations. We should be able to get your reservation back in sync on the phone so that you can check in through any of our automated systems.
• Kiosks in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Boston, Las Vegas and several other eastern cities did not convert smoothly during the migration. Now, we’re experiencing a success rate of about 75 percent and better in most locations. But, knowing of our passengers’ dependence (and our own reliance) upon the kiosks, we’ve been working literally around the clock to fix the problems and we won’t sleep until they’re fixed.
• Booking code share flights on United® and Winair won’t be available until approximately March 17, but existing reservations are not affected.
• Hold times can be long right now at Reservations as we continue to get through the out of sync issues, although your Preferred desks wait times are generally less than two minutes.

“This all sounds very clunky. Why didn’t you convert to a more modern system?”
Ugh. How much time do you have? The short version is this: Much of the technology that most airlines are built around is “legacy” mainframe systems from the 60’s and 70’s. These systems are deeply embedded in everything from reservations, to flight operations, to airport operations, to accounting. They are very reliable, but are very inflexible, so as our business changes, we often fight with one hand tied behind our back. You say: “So dummy, convert it to a 21st century system.” We would like to do that and eventually we will. The biggest reasons we can’t do it now are that there is currently no modern system in use to convert to, and the investment would be tremendous — that is, tremendously expensive. Several companies are building and preparing to implement more modern platforms for airlines to use and we are watching those closely and are in contact with those companies. However, even when the opportunity presents itself, we will have to proceed with caution. In an industry where we lose money more often than we turn a profit, it’s not always easy to justify replacing a system that works with a very expensive, untried system that carries additional risk. But stay tuned; we’ll get there.

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New Preferred Upgrade machine is up and running
We know that the most important benefit of being a Preferred member is the upgrade to First Class, and you’ve made it very clear that the upgrade process needs to be reliable, predictable and accurate. Now that we’re on one reservations system everyone is going through the same process for upgrades (can I get a hallelujah?).

Go to usairways.com to see exactly how it works. Here’s a brief list of how it’s going to get even better over the next few months:

• Today it runs once daily, in the middle of the night. Soon we’ll run it throughout the day so you don’t feel like you have to call in to “beat the system” when a seat becomes available during the day. So, don’t be surprised if you start getting daytime emails soon as we test the new process.
• Soon you’ll get automatic upgrading outside your upgrade window for full fare purchases. After we get this part built, we’ll be automatically checking for your upgrade up to 330 days before departure. Today you still need to call if you buy a Y or B full fare for your complimentary, on the spot upgrade.
• Soon you’ll be able to sign up for PDA-friendly upgrade notifications. We’ve heard the feedback from all of you PDA users, and are working on a way to send you your upgrade status without all the fancy graphics and HTML.

Once again thank you for your patience as we refine the new Reservations and Upgrade systems. Please know that we’ve made great progress and there is more come. 37,000 professionals are working hard every day to earn your business and build a strong and vibrant airline. It takes time, but with Res Migration behind us, it’s full steam ahead.

With Warm Regards,
H. Travis Christ
Vice President, Sales and Marketing

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About the author

Charles Fishman, a long-time Fast Company staffer and contributor, is the author of "The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works--and How It's Transforming the American Economy," the definitive look at Walmart, as well as "The Big Thirst, The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water."

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