About to land: The new United Airlines

A big day has arrived for the travel industry.  But, if all goes well travelers will not even notice.

At 9:59 p.m., United/Continental will reach a very big milestone in their merger—the official death of Continental Airlines. The Continental signage comes down, the website goes dark, and the last flight sold as Continental will land.  By morning, all flights will be labeled as United and there will be no sign of the old Continental.

When we say goodbye to Continental Airlines on March 3, we are also really saying hello to the new United. At least, that is what United is hoping. 

While simultaneously rebranding airports around the globe and launching a website may seems like incredible feats on their own, the biggest hurdle the new airline is ready to tackle is combining their flight inventory into a single reservation system. The new United is sticking with the current reservation system of Continental, which already generates about 40 percent of the combined airline’s flights.

By combining all of their reservations into one system, the new United can finally operate with a single “Passenger Service System.” This means that any United employee at any reservation center or gate can assist any United traveler, regardless of whether their ticket was originally a Continental flight or a United flight.

In short, travelers will no longer have to ferry back and forth between ticket counters or customer service numbers when needing assistance.

While this may sound simple, it is complicated, hairy, technical work that has been over a year in the making. There is a lot going on behind the scenes that the airlines and travel agencies are doing to prepare.  The airline is converting reservations and disseminating new rules and procedures to agency partners.  In an address to travel agency partners, United has assured us that after multiple dress rehearsals they are ready and equal to the task. 

We hope they are right.

This evening, United and Continental will both disappear briefly and come back to life as the new United.  The outage should be expected for up to 90 minutes, so don’t plan on shopping airfares that night.

Both United’s and Continental’s websites will go dark.  Access to flight inventory will be temporarily restricted.  Continental flight numbers will be erased and replaced with United flight numbers.

But, if all the technical details go as planned, what should travelers expect when they get to the airport on March 4?  For the most part, travelers really should expect “business as usual.” There are a few things travelers should know prior to the transition:

  • If you are booked on a Continental flight that is after March 3rd, you will get new documents with a new United flight number, either from the airline or your travel agency.
  • You can no longer combine your United (MileagePlus) and Continental (OnePass) frequent flier accounts.  The new United will do this for you on March 3.  We recommend all mileage holders verify that the name and address information is exactly the same on both accounts prior to March 3 to assist the airline in matching them up and combining your miles. While the new frequent flier program will stick with the MileagePlus name, it will actually use the OnePass number.
  • At a very small number of airports where United and Continental have not been able to relocate side-by-side, United will have split-operations. The biggest hub that travelers may get confused with will be London Heathrow, where United and Continental now jockey from opposite ends of the airport in Terminals 1 and 5. If you have ever been to Heathrow, you know that is about a 7 mile walk.
    For these select airports, boarding passes will clearly direct travelers to the correct terminal for check-in. And, at Heathrow specifically, United is prepared to ferry confused or lost travelers between Terminals if needed.
  • If you have an unused ticket credit with Continental, it can be converted to a United credit that will be valid for use for 6 months after March 3rd.  Call the airline or your travel agency for assistance in converting your Continental credits to United credits.

Perhaps Continental is not really dying, after all.  The new airline may call itself United, but the experience will feel a whole lot like Continental.  Travelers looking for more merger news and resources can visit http://hub.united.com, or as I so highly recommend, ask your favorite travel agent.