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UNITED AIRLINES' MARCH MADNESS
By Joe Brancatelli
When United and Continental airlines planned to move to one computer system in the early-morning hours of March 3, the switch of the legacy United operation onto Continental's network was sure to be fraught with problems. But United insisted it had everything covered and that it didn't need to warn flyers of the complexity of what was being planned.

Well, surprise, surprise. Like all airline-computer switchovers, the ride was incredibly bumpy. For two days, the United side of the airline was a mess, especially at its major hubs. And while the airline has solved its schedule problems, a host of integration issues remain. Travelers are having trouble accessing their frequent flyer accounts and securing their upgrades and calls to United for itinerary changes (or to check on luggage lost over the chaotic weekend of flying) are met with busy signals or insanely long holds. As you would expect, however, United is claiming victory and that its computer transition was nearly perfect. After all, no airline executive was harmed in the computer mashup that went awry.

Here's how we've covered United's anything-but-perfect lost weekend and the subsequent problems during the rest of March. And, as usual, the most recent item is at the top, blog-style. Read up from the bottom for full context.

4/5/12, 11:30PM ET, THURSDAY
UNITED'S ON-TIME RANTING TANKS IN MARCH

Among the other specious claims it made after the disastrous March 3 data conversion, United Airlines insisted that it continued to run on-time. Uhhh, nope, that's not true, either. According to statistics for March released this week by FlightStats.com, United finished last among the legacy carriers for on-time operations. Just 75.7 percent of its flights were on-time, nearly 12 points below the performance of US Airways, the best of the legacy airlines. It also cancelled more flights in March than either Delta Air Lines or US Airways.

3/30/12, 11:30PM ET, FRIDAY
KGO SAN FRANCISCO DETAILS UNITED'S COMPUTER MESS

Check out this well-reported piece from KGO, the ABC affiliate in San Francisco. The reporter does a good job explaining the problem with United's data transition from the ground level. In other words, he shows how difficult it is for former United employees, used to working with Apollo and its graphic interface, to switch to the command-driving SHARES system.

3/30/12, 6PM ET, FRIDAY
UNITED SAYS IT'S KIND-OF, SORT-OF SORRY

Elite United flyers received a shocking E-mail this afternoon. A sort-of, kind-of, foot-shuffling apology from the airline while it "complete[s] our transition." Signed by the top man at MileagePlus (executive vice president Jeff Foland) and Martin Hand, a senior vice president generally believed to be in charge of the data transition, the letter has some problems.

It is couched in terms that would have been acceptable at the beginning of the foul-ups, not four weeks into the mess. Moreover, it offers no timeline for fixes or tangible make-goods for customers. Worse, it continues to blame customers for some of the problems that United created. Worst of all, its claim on upgrades is an outright falsehood. The system is still broken. Oh, one other thing: How can the airline claim that it is completing its transition now when it claimed on March 3 that the transition was complete?

Ah, well, as Murray Slaughter so poignantly noted in the final episode of Mary Tyler Moore: When a donkey flies you can't complain when it doesn't stay up long. In other words, at least United managed to at least admit to some problems and stutter out something like an apology. Here's the full text of the letter:

As a Premier 1K member, you have come to deserve and expect a dependable, rewarding experience from United from end to end. We want to keep you up to date following our recent conversion to a single passenger service system, a single website and a single loyalty program. We know that our customers have experienced various issues since our system conversion. We are working aggressively to resolve the remaining issues promptly. Here is a progress update on key subjects about which we've heard from our customers.

+ Customer Service hold times. If you have called or sent us an email recently, you have more than likely experienced delays, in some cases for extended periods. We sincerely apologize for this. We are addressing these high volumes with a combination of system solutions and additional staffing. Be assured this is our top priority, and we are steadily reducing wait times and email backlogs.

+ Complimentary Premier Upgrades. Over the past few weeks, we experienced difficulties with our Complimentary Premier Upgrade process. We have stabilized our systems to ensure that upgrades are being processed in a timely manner and in the appropriate order. If your flight is eligible for a Complimentary Premier Upgrade, be assured that you will be automatically added to the upgrade list. Once you have checked in for your flight, you can see where you are on the list by going to mobile.united.com or our mobile app. Those familiar with the old united.com will notice that this procedure is different from before our system conversion.

Later this year we will enhance the upgrade process so that at any time you can see your pending upgrade requests. This will take us some time to accomplish, but we know that upgrades are an important Premier benefit and appreciate your patience while we refine this experience.

+ Mileage credit and redeposit. When you take an eligible flight on United, the mileage credit and Premier qualifying activity will appear in your account approximately 72 hours after departure. Flights on a Star Alliance member airline or another airline partner may take a bit longer. If a flight is missing from your account, you can call the MileagePlus Service Center to request the credit, and it will appear in your account approximately three weeks later.

On a related topic, you may have noticed that mileage redeposits for unused travel and upgrade awards are, in some cases, taking longer than normal to credit to your account. We are working to expedite this. Be assured that while it may take longer than usual right now, all mileage credits will post accurately to your account. The standard timeframe will be 10 days. We aim to systematically reduce these posting times as we go forward.

Signing in to united.com. We hope you have had a chance to sign in to the new united.com, but if you haven't, visit the United Hub at united.com/hub first, where you can learn about MileagePlus PINs, passwords and other topics designed to increase your familiarity with united.com. There are some features we know you'll enjoy about the new united.com, such as fewer steps to book a reservation (including award travel on United and more than 30 of our partners); Alex, the united.com guide; and more. Over the next year, we will be improving the functionality of our website and adding new features. Based on customer feedback, we are continuing to address a range of other subjects concerning our post-conversion travel procedures. Visit the United Hub for specific updates. Plus, we are intensifying our training process for customer service agents at our airports and contact centers, to focus particularly on the issues that we've heard about from our customers since the system conversion.

We thank you for your patience while we complete our transition and apologize again for any problems you've had. Your business matters to us, and we look forward to seeing you onboard soon.


3/29/12, 9AM ET, THURSDAY
UNITED'S LIVING IN ITS OWN PRIVATE IDAHO

The botched data transition at United Airlines underlines the arrogance of the world's largest carrier. The SkyGods running United are living in their own private Idaho and they think we'll put up with anything because we have no options. But business travelers aren't sheep. We defect in waves from airlines that treat us badly. We won't live in their private Idahos. Read it here.

3/22/12, 8:30PM ET, THURSDAY
UNITED BLAMES YOU FOR ITS CLOGGED PHONES

After trying to fake its way through an "update" on Tuesday by reprinting a week-old report word for word, United Airlines posted an actual new update today. You'll be happy to learn that the clogged phone lines and hours-long hold times are your fault.

Because of United's myriad computer breakdowns and screwups since the March 3 data combination, you've been calling too often. The problems "are resulting in a higher number of telephone calls to our phone-contact centers, and this is increasing the amount of time it can take for us to respond to your call. We have added staff to our contact centers to serve you better." The update doesn't define what better service is because it's hard to describe two-hour holds as "better" than anything other than ... three-hour holds. Meanwhile, United insists that it has "made good progress correcting a number of technical issues that stemmed from a very complex system conversion." The same conversion, you'll recall, that United spokespeople contemporaneously claimed was nearly perfect. The update does grudgingly admit that United has fouled up the upgrade process and still hasn't fixed a crucial ticketing problem for travelers who booked passage on the pre-conversion United computers.

Finally, a note for MileagePlus members who can't access their account because United changed your membership number and never bothered to issue a PIN or password. That problem, too, is your fault because you're not doing what United tells you to do. No matter that what United tells you to do does not work for the untold number of travelers who are stuck and then annoy United by daring to call and ask for a fix.

3/20/12, 7:11PM ET, TUESDAY
TALKING ABOUT UNITED NOT TALKING

As if you don't get enough from me in print, the good folks at Dow Jones Marketwatch Radio spent a bunch of minutes talking to me about the hows, whys and what-to-dos about United's data-conversion woes. If you can put up with me babbling (and the Brooklyn accent) for six minutes on the radio, surf here. Maybe you can listen while you wait endlessly on hold with United trying to get a ticket fixed.

3/20/12, 5:30PM ET, TUESDAY
TIME TO BOOK AWAY FROM UNITED FOR A WHILE

The situation at United Airlines continues to be just this side of awful for many of the carrier's flyers. What we can say now with assurance is that any chance of a quick resolution of the issues created by the March 3 data conversion is gone.
Elite United customers wrestling with upgrades issues and other MileagePlus concerns are being bluntly told by United personal (when they can be reached) that virtually nothing will improve before the beginning of next month. If your upgrades aren't clearing or your miles aren't posting or your tickets aren't being generated or your Economy Plus seating isn't coming through, you'll just have to wait, says United.
Recovery from irregular operations is an ongoing problem, especially for travelers at legacy United stations. Legacy United employees continue to seem unable to master the computer systems. Two places that are especially troublesome this week: Los Angeles and San Francisco. And the problem seems to reach into legacy Continental operations, too.
United is now stuck in a corporate speak feedback loop. A supposed "update" posted today to the manifestly unhelpful UnitedHub.com is, in fact, a word-for-word repeat of an "update" originally posted more than a week ago. It's also offensive since United claims that "some technical issues ... would be expected with a very complex systems change." Again, in fact, United was saying exactly the opposite in the days leading up to the conversion. They were urging travelers to "check in for your travel as you usually would."
The non-update update also admits that elite customers continue to have the most pressing issues that have not been resolved. Which, of course, raises the obvious question: What airline plans a systems change that offends its best and most profitable customers the most? Sorry, folks, I have no answers.
Weather has caused serious delays and a clutch of cancellations today at Houston/Intercontinental, the airline's largest hub. (Departures are now operating at just 40 percent and were much worse this morning, according to FlightStats.com.) Combined with bad weather in Houston and weather-related delays at San Francisco and Chicago this month, it's fair to wonder if United will face a rash of end-of-month cancellations as flight crews run up against federally mandated duty-time limits.
Forget any real cooperation with United's Star Alliance partners. Many Star carriers can't recognize your frequent flyer number, none can process upgrades and many are unable to reliably book interline itineraries. Star airlines are as befuddled by this post-conversion situation as legacy United personnel.
Want to talk to United about the problems? Lots of luck if you're a low-level elite or general flyer. The phone lines continue to force you into long holds or the system simply hangs up on you. United 1K and GS flyers are having better luck, but not consistently. If you're a United super-elite and get put into a hold queue, hang up and try again. It sometimes helps.

Just before the data conversion, I urged caution, but suggested that there was no evidence that you needed to book away from United. I think now, more than two weeks into the ongoing situation, that it would be wise to fly another carrier in the next few weeks.

It's not that any individual problem itself is overwhelming. But when you combine the flight ops issues with the inability to reach anyone by phone and the reality that frontline United people are beginning to suffer what can only be described as battle fatigue, it's not good. Ticket issuance via United.com's two-step process continues to be unreliable and unpredictable, too. On-time performance is down markedly and cancellations are up compared to United and Continental's pre-March 3 operations.

For your own protection, my advice is fly someone else for a while. United's just not worth the aggravation right now and they don't seem willing or able to level with customers about when the supposedly successful conversion will actually be successful.

3/15/12, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
UNITED STILL CAN'T GET ITS COMPUTER ACT TOGETHER

Nearly two weeks after the chaotic United-Continental data-systems merger, the combined United is still dealing with a raft of severe problems. For starters, reaching the airline by telephone continues to be hit or miss. Some elite flyers are getting through with minimal holds, others continue to wait hours or, worse, get disconnected because United can't handle the volume. Another continuing issue: Elites expecting to use their upgrades continue to be flummoxed by new processes or have lost previously approved upgrades, which then requires a call to the impossibly congested phone lines. United also hasn't solved the problem of days-long delays in issuing tickets ordered on and confirmed by its Web site. And as a lot of frustrated flyers in San Francisco learned yesterday (March 14), legacy United employees continue to struggle with the SHARES computer system whenever they must manage "irregular operations." (That's delayed and cancelled flights to you and me.) Bad weather yesterday at SFO led United's on-time performance there to fall below 40 percent, partially because the employees still don't know the procedures and codes used by the SHARES system. Finally, if you're still missing miles in your frequent flyer account or have had trouble getting recent flights to post, don't expect much resolution before the end of the month.

3/11/12, 8:50PM ET, SUNDAY
ANOTHER MESSY WEEKEND AND LONG-TERM CONCERNS

A week into this data merger between the legacy United and Continental airlines, I think it's fair to say that the conversion is a mess, it's getting worse--and there are clear signs of extraordinary strain that United is unwilling and/or unable to alleviate.

Before we hit the conversion stuff, a warning: Houston-Intercontinental, the combined carrier's largest hub, has been a nightmare this weekend. Higher-than-average traffic, bad weather and the inability to reach United on the phone is making for lots of problems. Yesterday, the airline's on-time departures from IAH were around 50 percent. That is looking golden compared to today's operation. With about three-quarters of the day's approximately 250 departures in the books, the airline is managing just 26 percent on-time. About 40 percent of the nearly 140 delays are in the "severe" (45+ minute category). Arrivals are little better so far, with just half making it on-time and about half of the tardy flights falling into the severe category. (As always, these statistics come from FlightStats.com.)

A bad-weather day is never fun, of course, but running under 50 percent at a hub is a dire situation. And while this has virtually nothing to do with the data conversion, the impossible delays in reaching live help at United have made the delays and cancellations (about 30 today) beyond challenging.

Which bring us to the data-conversion issue. As more and more legacy United travelers look at their upcoming travel plans, more and more of them learn that their data didn't migrate properly. Upgrades continue to go missing, seat assignments have been lost and segments have disappeared from their itineraries. And since most of these Apollo-to-SHARES problems cannot be fixed on the United.com website, travelers need to call United.

Lots of luck calling United. Although some (but not all) Global Service and 1K travelers say their wait times are (finally) substantially reduced, mid-level elites and general flyers are running into absurdly long delays. That's if United's phone system will let you wait on hold. Most travelers are being told the systems are jammed and then the call is disconnected.

In Unitedspeak, this translates into "you may be prompted to try your call at another time." And isn't that a charming way to say "we're hanging up on you"? Don't you feel better about things knowing that you've been "prompted" rather than hung up on?

Speaking of Unitedspeak, the airline published an update on the data transition yesterday. The gist of the message? It has fixed an array of problems that it denied all week that it was having. The message goes on to explain that there are at least seven other data issues that the airline hasn't fixed, but is "making a special effort" to address.

Remember the salad days of Saturday, March 3, when United insisted the "conversion is proceeding according to plan and the system cutover is going well"? In the immortal words of Watergate-era White House spokesman Ron Ziegler, United's March 3 statement apparently is no longer operative. The airline's continuing problems make you wonder if, to paraphrase Ziegler, we're living through a third-rate conversion.

Adding to these issues are continuing balky online check-in kiosks at the airport and some brutal issues with United.com itself. One issue that has arisen this week is the ticket-purchase process.

For those of you who weren't pre-merger Continental customers, you need to understand that the Continental.com site never did instant ticketing. The software first generated a confirmation message sent to your email. SHARES would then send the e-ticket, usually within an hour. It wasn't elegant, but Continental customers were used to it and it was basically second nature.

Apparently, however, no one told customers of the former United.com about SHARES' two-step procedure. So they're angry that they can't get instant ticketing. But now comes the real problem: SHARES is apparently overloaded and isn't promptly processing the volume of the combined United and Continental. Travelers are now reporting two-, three-, even four-day waits for tickets to process. That's if the tickets arrive at all. This ticketing lag is now affecting both former United and former Continental customers, of course.

United has been silent on the ticketing issue so far. The question now is how long this will continue. It's eight days into the transition and there are more problems now than on Day One. It's could make for an ugly March, especially since United seems unable to come clean, unable to man the phones and was unwilling to do the electronic spade work that would have made the transition go more smoothly.

3/8/12, 9PM ET, THURSDAY
WHAT'S STILL NOT WORKING AT UNITED? PLENTY.

Credit where credit is due: After a weekend of lousy operations at legacy United hubs, the "new" United Airlines running on legacy Continental's software has cleaned up its on-time operation. But as the business week wore on, serious cracks in United's computer cutover became apparent. What's gone wrong:
   Whenever something can't be accomplished on United's increasingly balky Web site, travelers are spending hours trying to call United. Hold times continue to be as long as six hours--and that's if United's system doesn't hang up on you. The phone chaos extends to elite flyers using the 1K and GS service lines.
   Upgrades, seat assignments, service classes, passenger-reservation numbers and other salient travel details have been lost or changed. But you can't fix the problems on the Web site, so it's off to the clogged phones.
   Untold numbers of elite United flyers have not received their 2012 MileagePlus credentials and can't use the Web site because it hasn't updated or won't accept the newly assigned account numbers. Need a current MileagePlus card to access a Star Alliance lounge? Tough luck if yours hasn't arrived because the Web site won't let you print out a substitute.
   Travelers hoping to use their elite status to secure Economy Plus seats--or who have paid for E+ status--aren't able to get what they deserve. Unless they pay again, no Economy Plus for them.
   Throughout the week, various key functions of United.com have failed. That includes completing reservations, ticket purchases and a raft of frequent flyer program activities. The glitches come and go, United's tech department has no answers and, of course, lots of luck calling for assistance.
   A series of security breaches has led unsuspecting United travelers using United.com and United's mobile Web site to land smack in the middle of other flyers' business. An unknown number of MileagePlus accounts have been compromised and United hasn't publicly acknowledged the problem, let alone close the back doors that have been discovered.

3/8/12, 9AM ET, THURSDAY
THE AIRLINES VERSUS THE BIBLE

United's lost weekend of delays and this week's continuing glitches remind us that airlines always want the benefit of the doubt from us when they have a problem. But when do they cut us a break when we have a problem? The answer: Never. That's why the Biblical enjoinder to do unto others as you would have them do unto you doesn't work with airlines. For business travelers, the only wise course is to do unto the airlines exactly as they do unto us. Demand airlines perform or take your business elsewhere. The entire Brancatelli File think piece/screed is here.

3/4/12, 11:45PM ET, SUNDAY
OOPS, UNITED DID IT AGAIN...

According to FlightStats, just 52 percent of United's flights departed on time today when the entire schedule was done. While that's an improvement over yesterday's chaos during the first day of the supposedly successful transition of pre-merger United Airlines onto Continental's computer systems, it's at least 30 points lower than O'Hare flights would normally do on a clear-weather Sunday.

3/4/12, 3:30PM ET, SUNDAY
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE COMPUTER PROBLEMS...

Our long, national nightmare may be drawing to a close as the pre-merger part of United Airlines begins to return to something like normal operations.

With near-perfect flying conditions nationwide, United at Chicago/O'Hare is running about 65 percent on-time for departures. Although that's down substantially from just a few hours ago, it's about three times better than United was doing yesterday. But, for comparison purposes, know that American Airlines out of O'Hare is doing 95 percent today. Cancellations around the combined United system are up slightly today, although well within an acceptable range.

That indicates that this evening, when business travelers get back on the road in full force, won't be like last night's chaos. So go in peace--but go early and with plenty of paper back-up.

We can, for the moment at least, turn our attention to the immediate shorter term because there are real concerns:
   1) Flyers traveling with upgrades continue to be rejected for online check-in, which then requires a call to United (still a time-consuming nightmare) or a trip to the ticket counter, where lines are much longer than usual. It doesn't look like United has a simple fix for this one and that could plague our travel for quite some time. Calculate this into your plans until you hear that things are back to what United will claim is normal.
   2) Not that I think this is terribly important in the larger scheme of things, but United now claims that it'll take 72 hours for your complete frequent flyer records (including balances and status) to sync. You may want to watch this carefully, have hard-copy backups of everything and be prepared to intervene if this stuff doesn't work itself out by the end of the week.
   3) For the first time, United is now admitting that some (many?) of its airport check-in kiosks weren't working properly yesterday. Is this important now? Of course not, but it pokes a hole in its ridiculous narrative that the computer transition itself went just fine.
   4) United has had a surprising amount of luck in the mainstream media spinning its awful operational performance yesterday. I've seen three or four references to United's claim that 75 percent of its flights ran within 30 minutes of schedule yesterday. So what? Since when is "within 30 minutes of schedule" considered "on-time"? For decades, the government standard has been less than 15 minutes. Why are the media allowing United to skew the numbers, thus obscuring its operational failures? It's absurd for mainstream media outlets to allow United to define its own on-time performance when we have a well-established, government-defined and universal standard for judging on-time operations.

Meanwhile, consider this from a JoeSentMe member concerning his flight yesterday from Houston to West Palm Beach: "Just as we were ready to board, the systems went down. This was in the regional jet 'bus' barn at IAH. They lost track of which plane was at each door. I remembered the door they had told me and just went over. The [gate agent] insisted the flight was going to Omaha because that was what the sign said. I was first in line and insisted that she go out and ask the pilot, who said the plane was, indeed, going to West Palm. She then let us on. For the moment, the inmates (with me in command) were running the asylum."

Finally, consider this: At the manifestly unhelpful UnitedHub.com site, someone at United thought it would be clever to link to all of the airline's social-media interaction. I expect they were expecting a stream of kudos about their performance. So there's a space marked "What we are hearing" on the home page and it contains tweets, Facebook postings and E-mail. But the effort was abandoned at 1 pm yesterday. If you want to see what social-media types were telling United after that, surf to United's Facebook page and read the blistering posts

3/4/12, 10:30AM ET, SUNDAY
YOUR TALES FROM THE WAR ZONE

Some light reading with your morning beverage. I promise: While the news of Day 2 of the United-Continental data migration is not good, I'll include nothing that will induce a spit take. Consider this your tales from the war zone.

One JoeSentMe member with a scheduled 9 am Chicago/O'Hare to Newark flight sent me this E-mail report: "Terminal One is swamped. Queues everywhere, including the 1K and Premier lines. I would estimate 15 and 30 minutes of waiting, respectively, just to get to an agent. I was fortunate that I could print a boarding pass yesterday, but I spoke to a fellow pax who wasn't so fortunate. A tip: Use the porters outside. There are virtually no lines and they seem to have a clue on using the systems. I was done [checking luggage] in three minutes. He certainly earned his tip."

At the same moment, I got a voice mail from a JoeSentMe member with scheduled 9:35 am O'Hare to Puerto Vallarta flight. Here's what he said: "Went through Global Services. Took about 10 minutes. Backed up. They don't understand the computer system. They're learning and they were actually training in GS as I went. Each agent has someone at their side showing them how to use the system. The complaint is that the new computers take many more keystrokes to do anything compared to the old system. The 1K line was about 25 people deep. Economy was just bad. It's well, well, well backed up."

Then another E-mail from a JoeSentMe member whose daughter has a flight this evening, but who could not get an online boarding pass and was electronically instructed to call United. "She gave up after three hours on hold on the regular line." So he took charge and called his Global Service number. "Finally, after 2.5 hours on hold on the GS line, we were talking to an agent! I have to give her credit, she was very calm and friendly while working through the syncing of the old reservation and the new one. Either she is a saint or she just got on duty!"

Finally, one more E-mail from a JoeSentMe member who is a super-elite Global Service United flyer: "Just called to sort out a ticket mess they created yesterday to be greeted, after a 45-minute wait, with a cheery, 'Continental Airlines.' I guess not all staff got the message!"

Enjoy your morning. I'll be back later in the day to assess how United flight operations are actually performing. The pre-merger United had about 850 scheduled arrivals and departures yesterday. Today, it's more than 1,000 and we'll see lots more business travelers this evening.

3/4/12, 1:30AM ET, SUNDAY
WASN'T SATURDAY A FUN DAY TO FLY UNITED?

Hasn't Saturday been fun for anyone flying United Airlines? With most of the pre-merger United's Saturday flight schedule now in the books, the numbers are simply atrocious: just 46 percent on-time for departures and 56 percent on-time for arrivals.

The numbers are even worse for Chicago/O'Hare and Washington/Dulles, two of the pre-merger United's main hubs.

At Dulles, it was 29 percent on-time departures and 45 percent on-time arrivals. One JoeSentMe member reports his 64-minute Dulles to Greensboro flight this afternoon was delayed by 227 minutes due to "late arriving" aircraft. Before he was able to board his flight, he passed a customer-service station at Dulles with "about two hundred folks in a queue."

At O'Hare, just 26 percent of flights departed on-time on Saturday and just 44 percent arrived on time.

The only thing performing more poorly than United in Chicago on Day One of its supposedly four-times-rehearsed transition to Continental's computers was the Chicago Tribune. In two different stories on Saturday, its reporter swallowed the everything's-just-fine lie being fed to it by a United Airlines spokesman.

Shame on United management for not training its crews properly on the new software. Shame on the United spokesman for blatantly lying about the airline's performance at its most important hub. But shame on the Chicago Tribune for not even sending anyone out to O'Hare to check--or, apparently, even bothering to surf to any of the easily available flight trackers to find the real numbers.

One final kicker to show you the fantasyland in which airlines now expect passengers to live: The manifestly unhelpful Unitedhub.com site is now telling customers to "consider" not calling the airline because call-center volumes are "higher than normal." It blithely suggests customers use United.com for "self-service." But, of course, United.com continues to change reservation numbers at random, cancel or not display seat assignments and refuse to print boarding passes for many itineraries.

3/3/12, 5PM ET, SATURDAY
PERILIOUSLY CLOSE TO A MELTDOWN

An update on the United-Continental computer transition and the news is not very good. The pre-merger United part of the airline now seems perilously close to a meltdown.

Overall for the day, with about half of the schedule done, just 47 percent of the old United's flights are departing on time and just 67 percent are arriving on time. Compare that to the old Continental part of the airline, which is doing 69 percent on arrivals and departures. Remember that the old Continental part of the airline is saddled with Newark, its largest hub, where 69 percent on-time is thisclose to the best it can do.

The situation is worst at Chicago/O'Hare, where just 15 percent of the old United's departures are on-time. And about one in five of the delayed flights are late by 45 minutes or more. That's "severe" delay territory. Only 62 percent of the pre-merger United flights at O'Hare are arriving on-time. It looks like a lot of the departure delays are due to flights being held so even more travelers don't miss connections.

At Washington/Dulles, another pre-merger United hub, the numbers are just 34 percent (departures) and 57 percent (arrivals) on-time. Denver is the "best" of United's old hubs with a 46 (departures) and 81 (arrivals) percent record. By contrast, the old Continental part of the Denver operation has been running at a respectable 70 percent arrivals/78 percent departures on-time clip.

And, inevitably, the delays are now cascading west. At LAX, the old United is doing 46 percent on departures and 80 percent on arrivals. (Again, by contrast, the former Continental service at LAX is doing north of 85 percent for both arrivals and departures.) San Francisco is at 39 percent departure on-time and 67 percent arrival on time.

One more bit of contrast: At Newark, where the old United service is minimal, it is managing just a 29 percent on-time departure rate. The gigantic Continental operation at Newark is doing a respectable 75 percent on-time departure rate.

(All these statistics, by the way, come from the remarkable folks at FlightStats.com.)

Adding to the problem at the United today are the extraordinary hold times if you call them. If you can even get through, the wait times are upwards of two hours. Even the elite lines (including its best-of-the-best Global Service numbers) are experiencing hold times of as much as an hour.

The inevitable conclusion, I think, is this: Since pre-merger Continental is working just fine and pre-merger United is doing very poorly and United shifted to Continental's computer system, you have to assume that pre-merger United's ground staff simply hasn't gotten enough training on the Continental system. The good news is that, eventually, the United staff will learn in the trenches. The bad news is that we don't know whether they'll be up to speed by tomorrow evening and Monday morning, when business travelers return in full force to the nation's airport.

3/3/12, 1PM ET, SATURDAY
THE SNAPSHOT AT O'HARE: OUCH!

Put this one in the "ouch!" category of snapshot. According to FlightStats.com, the pre-merger United part of the merged United Airlines has had 50 scheduled departures from its hub at Chicago/O'Hare. Only 8 (14 percent) left on time. One was cancelled, 15 were between 15 and 30 minutes late, 13 went out 30-45 minutes late and 14 were delayed by more than 45 minutes. By comparison, American Airlines has had 58 departures from O'Hare today. Five were cancelled but 90 percent of the rest departed on time.

3/3/12, 10:45AM ET, SATURDAY
WHEN DATA CONVERSIONS GO BAD

The United Airline/Continental data conversion is taking an unhappy turn, especially at Dulles Airport near Washington and Chicago/O'Hare, two pre-merger United hubs.

Dulles and O'Hare are performing quite poorly now. Thanks to a raft of systems issues on the ground, flights are leaving late and arriving late at unacceptably high rates considering these are hubs where travelers may be making connections.

At the moment, United is operating at about 30 percent (departures) and 67 percent (arrivals) at O'Hare, the pre-merger United's largest hub. At Dulles, the on-time numbers are even worse: about 20 percent (departures) and 60 percent (arrivals). It's early for Los Angeles, but LAX isn't doing all that well, either. San Francisco and Denver are doing okay by comparison.

If you are using United for a connecting itinerary today and tomorrow, it is imperative that you leave lots of time and have lots of patience. Given that these morning delays will cascade through the system, things are likely to continue to deteriorate during the rest of the day. Make sure you've done your own homework on alternate connections so you're armed with information if you miss your first connecting flight. Don't assume United has automatically protected you on the next flight out.

Another problem area today: Upgrades. As I mentioned in my earlier report, virtually all itineraries that included an elite status upgrade have been problematic. And United itself is now telling flyers traveling today and tomorrow on upgrades to call in for assistance. The problem with that: The elite phone lines are very busy (duh!) and the waits are long.

Can I make one really helpful suggestion? If you're not flying this weekend, it might be wise to stay off United.com and the United mobile site and refrain from calling United on the phone. I know this is a problem of United's own making and that they were too blasť about how things were going to go, but why make things worse for our fellow travelers by clogging up the Web and mobile sites and phone lines? Let's get our fellow flyers on the way as fast as possible and fight with next week's flights later. I'm not suggesting you do it for United's sake, but for the sake of our fellow travelers...

3/3/12, 8:45AM ET, SATURDAY
FIRST LOOK: NO CRASHES, BUT PLENTY OF ISSUES

I wanted to update you on the United Airlines/Continental Airlines computer conversion situation that took place overnight.

Very early indications: No system-has-crashed crises, but enough issues to make it a less than terrific start if you're traveling on what is now the combined United Airlines.

The biggest issue seems to be surrounding elite travelers using upgrades. In other words, most of us. Many itineraries with upgrades are showing messages like: "A modification has been made to your itinerary. Please contact United Reservations to have your ticket reissued." or "Your reservation requires special handling. Please check in at an airport kiosk."

Reporting to travelers on Flyertalk.com, a United representative says that it is a system issue that is not yet synced. The good news: Doesn't look like anyone traveling today has actually lost their upgrade. The better news: United does seem to be doing some proactive work talking to the noisiest flyers (uh, us...) where we live electronically.

On-time departures are a problem--at least so far early this morning. FlightStats.com says that pre-merger United flights are going out at around 61 percent on-time--and slowly falling. Pre-merger Continental flights are doing better, about 78 percent--and slowly rising. One hot spot is Boston, where five of the first six United flights went out late. (There's some annoying weather along the East Coast, so keep that in mind, too...)

On-time status is something we'll have to watch closely today. I spoke to a JoeSentMe member who was still sitting on the ground at Washington/National nearly an hour after her 7:20am flight to Chicago/O'Hare was scheduled to depart, yet United.com had been carrying the flight as on-time. In point of fact, it pushed back from the gate at a listed time of 8:10am and still seemed to be sitting on the tarmac at 8:30am. I point this out because that may indicate there will be poorer performance today than the first bank of departing East Coast hub flights showed.

In other words, if you're flying United today and have a connection, KNOW BEFORE YOU GO what your alternate flight arrangements are. There may be a slew of missed connections today. And, really, get to the airport early today. It couldn't hurt...

Speaking of Boston/Logan, it's one of about a dozen United non-hub airports that DO NOT have all of their flights operating from a single terminal. That is causing some confusion as travelers in these cities are searching for where their flights are operating. United has posted a list of split-terminal cities and you can examine that here.

Of less immediate import, but worth reporting: The syncing of your old United Mileage Plus miles and your old Continental OnePass miles into a single new MileagePlus account is far from complete. A lot of travelers are showing incomplete totals. This one might take a few days to smooth out. My advice: Unless you need access to all of your miles immediately, give United a temporary (and short-term) pass on this one. If you're not "whole" by midweek, start the complaint process. But this weekend, let it pass and see what happens.

Speaking of MileagePlus, many elite members still have not received their 2012 credentials. (Your 2011 status was extended through yesterday.) United seems to have been delivering a lot of these member packets via overnight courier. So, again, unless you need your 2012 cards immediately (for access to Star Alliance international airport lounges, for example), give United another few days. By midweek, if you've still got nothing, start the complaint process.

One other important note: There seems to be a substantial number of reports of record locator (PNR) number changes as pre-merger United flights shifted from the legacy Apollo computers to pre-merger Continental's SHARES computer system. If you're flying later today or in the next few days, double-check on United.com to see if you've got a change in numbers. And print everything...

2/29/12, 12:15AM ET, WEDNESDAY
HOW TO PREPARE FOR UNITED'S BIG DATA SHIFT

What happens when the world's largest airline shifts a gigantic hunk of its worldwide operations onto a new computer system? I don't know. You don't know. And for all its blasť proclamations of business as usual, neither does United Airlines, which hopes to pull off a computer switch in the wee hours of Saturday morning. I have some practical tips to survive the transition Saturday, Sunday and for the coming weeks. Surf here to protect yourself.

2/23/12, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
IT'S OKAY TO BE AFRAID OF NEXT WEEK'S DATA MERGER

History has made us very nervous when an airline changes or merges information-technology systems. So it's okay if you're worried about next week's switch of United Airlines onto the computers of what used to be Continental Airlines. All at once, starting late on Friday, March 2, everything you can think of will be renamed, renumbered and called United while the entire combined carrier will migrate to Continental's systems. This includes all frequent flyer information, which will adopt Continental's old OnePass numbering system. And if you need visual proof, look at the dummy home page for the new United.com. Looks like the existing Continental home page, doesn't it? And while we have no way of knowing how much chaos the computer change may cause, the first bit of hard news isn't good: Sabre, the computing power behind many travel agencies, reports that it won't be able to book Economy Plus seats after the change to Continental computers. As Bette Davis' Margo character said in the classic All About Eve: Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night. And as she didn't say: It might not be a bad idea to book away from United or Continental for a few days starting on March 2. In fact, if you really want to be safe, avoid the entire Star Alliance for a few days.

12/22/11, 8PM ET, THURSDAY
THE GHOST OF COMPUTER MERGERS YET TO COME

Amost two months after it moved from a jury-rigged network to the widely used Sabre system, Virgin America continues to inconvenience and infuriate passengers. Virgin's meltdown is much longer than, if not as severe as, the Ghost of Meltdowns Past, the US Airways fiasco of 2007. Most of all, however, Virgin's woes remind us of the Ghost of Potential Airline Computer Meltdowns Yet to Come. Early in March, United Airlines will move to the computer systems currently hosting Continental Airlines. The transition is due just a few weeks before the implementation of what the airline industry euphemistically calls its "summer schedule" during the last weekend of March. The folks I've talked to at United and Continental are circumspect about the switchover, yet insist that they'll be ready. But consider: It's not for nothing that the computer change, an incredibly complicated operation, is virtually the final major task United and Continental have on their merger calendar. And consider that the United-Continental combination will be the largest in the airline world. A computer glitch could get extraordinarily ugly extremely fast. My advice: Circle early March in your nifty new 2012 date books and think long and hard before booking a United/Continental itinerary.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2012 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.