As a number of United fliers are aware, March 3nd marks the day when United and Continental move to a single Passenger Service System or PSS for short. Over the last few months, there has been a lot of animosity, particularly from the legacy United fliers about how awful this will be. But will it really be that awful or is this the general over sensationalism that the legacy UA fliers are so keen on projecting?
Let's start with a bit of a background. Apollo started its life in the 1970s with United and over the years United owned it and maintained it. At around the same time, Eastern Airlines launched a platform named SystemONE (which later evolved into current day SHARES). Rumor has it that Frank Lorenzo explicitly bought Eastern for access to SystemONE to support Texas Air (later to become Continental). In the early 90s, United chose to sell Apollo to divest itself of that part of the business. In the same era, Continental also chose to sell off a good portion of SystemONE to EDS and Amadeus.
While both airlines chose to sell their platforms, the one key differentiator was that Continental leveraged a license for itself so that it wouldn't have to pay a third party to support its reservations systems. Fast forward to the current day. Legacy United spends millions of dollars a year on Apollo, simply for maintenance. Any time a change needs to be done or a new feature implemented, United finds itself spending tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the most minor changes implemented since they don't own or control the platform. Continental, on the other hand, has direct access to its platform and a staff of developers. In addition, the majority of its programs are developed outside the mainframe itself. The intended result is to be more responsive to the evolving needs of the customer. A great example of this is the Flight Information pages with upgrade lists, standby lists and seat maps, this feature was developed in a very short amount of time due to the lack of dependence on a third party and mainframe programming.
Having been in the data centers of a number of large airlines, I can say that their contents look like they belong in the Smithsonian and not supporting multi-billion dollar corporations. As both Apollo and SHARES have their origins in the 70s, neither of them is anywhere near cutting-edge. Legacy United does everything on Apollo, it is the central host for all functions. On the flip side, Continental has gradually moved away from the mainframe model to its distributed model over the years reducing the number of functions that SHARES supports directly.
Over the years, United developed an application called FastAir that all the agents use. This is nothing more than a front-end to Apollo. FastAir can make a number of operations easier to perform, but it isn't the only way to do them. United phone agents use a similar adaptation known as FastRes.
Continental took a similar approach with its agent front-ends, and the current model is known as EZR. EZR was deployed to phone agents, but its airport adaptation was only rolled out to a handful of stations. Those stations not using EZR are using the old text interface, more commonly referred to as "Green Screen".
If you speak with older United agents, a lot of them are excited about having Green Screen access again. You see, while a front-end interface can make operations easier to perform, it also limits the things that can be done as there are so many more permutations of customer problems and solutions to them than the front end can directly support. With raw access agents have a lot more flexibility and it's easier to force things through. The skilled agents, in theory, know what they are doing and want the ability to force things through without too much of a challenge.
While a lot of folks will claim how easy FastAir is, I've also seen agents struggle with FastAir when attempting to perform more obscure operations. (On a side note, rumor has it that FastSHARES is being developed as a front end for SHARES. There was hope it would be done before the merging of the systems, but that doesn't appear to be the case anymore.)
So what does this all mean to the traveler? Each platform has it's positives and it's negatives. Legacy United agents may have the biggest hurdle. Being so used to FastAir and having to go to a Green Screen will be a challenge. While you'll find the older agents will embrace it and run with it, the newer agents may be a bit more fearful.
One of the biggest complaints you will hear about SHARES is the challenges it poses during irregular operations. Having experienced enough IRROPs and doing a bit of digging, I've learned that SHARES and EZR were very rarely the issue with rebooking during IRROPs. One of the biggest issues has been Continental's long standing policy of avoiding rebooking on an alternate carrier in situations where reasonable reaccommodation wasn't possible. (Coincidentally, this policy has not existed for quite some time, yet it's very ingrained in the agents so that ends up being the real issue.) This is strictly policy and not a technology challenge.
From an electronic ticketing perspective, APOLLO definitely has the lead. Ticketing on SHARES can be a bit problematic, particularly when having mixed-carriers on a single ticket. When and if this will be fixed remains to be seen. I've been bitten by it and it's not pleasant.
Additionally, one thing to keep in mind during IRROPs, SHARES cancels subsequent segments if one segment is missed. So, as an example, say you have a flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco to Newark and your first flight is delayed. You opt to just hop in a car and drive to Newark. But unless that first segment is removed from the ticket, the rest of your ticket will be canceled when you miss that first flight.
To the contrary, there are things with APOLLO that have been restrictive over the years as well. Some of the improvements the United flier will see are:
- The ability to apply a SWU or CR-1 to a UA operated flight that was booked as a code-share. This one always irked me with the prevalence of code-shares so I'm glad to see this won't be an issue much longer.
- The ability to manage reservations on-line, even when booked over the phone. Today, if a reservation is booked via the phone, united.com will not let you modify it.
- The ability to see Upgrade Waitlists and Standby Waitlists from the phone or computer. No more rushing to the gate to see the monitors and find where you rank on the list.
- The ability to see active seat maps on your phone or computer and to see if that seat next to you remains open.
- Faster implementation of new features and services as United won't be at the mercy of a third party organization to do the work for them.
- No need to cancel your check-in before an agent can make a change. As a business traveler, this one was a bit challenging while running to the airport and attempting to make a change only to be told that it wasn't possible until I cancel my check-in.
In both systems, tickets are issued against reservations. In SHARES, reservations must match tickets. In APOLLO, an agent can change your reservation and issue you a boarding pass without reissuing the ticket. While some think this is good thing, for most travelers it's bad. I've seen a number of issues on United reservations where not reissuing the ticket caused issues when a traveler was attempting to fly the return portion.
Will the transition be a walk in the park? Doubtful. Whether it will be the end of the world, also doubtful. In the end, there will be a bit of transition time as the legacy UA agents come up to speed. But, had the choice been made to go with APOLLO, we'd have an entire set of CO agents who would need to learn a new system and the problem would be no different.