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Airline Information Technology Is Pathetic

by Jason Steele

I was already considering the sad state of airline’s computer systems when I received the following call yesterday:

US Airways: I am calling for Steele, party of two.

Me: This is Jason

US Airways: I am calling for Steele, party of two.

Me: This is Jason Steele, I am a person, not party, what is this in reference to?

US Airways: I am calling to inform you of a schedule change to an upcoming flight [a reference to a partner award I am flying next year].

Me: Yes

US Airways: There has been a schedule change in one of your flights by about five minutes, I can send you an email.

Me: Ok, that would be great.

US Airways: Click.

Me: Hello?

Of course, I never did receive such an email.

What Is Going On?

Airlines invest all sorts of money in revenue management, in order to try to extract the most possible money from their customers by offering millions of different fares that are constantly changing.  In this respect, they are competing with each other to be on the cutting edge. This is in contrast to how they handle their customer facing information technology systems. My bizarre phone call from US Airways is only one of the strange behaviors of airlines in the United States and around the world. Lets just look at the major domestic carriers:

US Airways

While other Star Alliance carriers allow customers to search for and book partner awards online, US requires customers to call them. As I have written, it is extremely difficult to deal with their call center, even if you have already found the available partner award flights using other airline’s web sites.

American Airlines

Just when I thought that US Airways systems were the most screwed up, I read this article about how American Airlines still writes tickets out like its 1973.  There it could take hours or even days to ticket an award flight!  Apparently, they have a manual process for doing so.  American does try to offer some innovative services. For example, on a flight I had with them last year, there was a delay. Upon check in, by boarding pass was issued with the revised departure time. I showed up an 45 minutes prior to the new departure time, but there was no airplane. I waited, looked at the monitors and tried to figure out what was going on, but there was no indication. At thirty minutes prior to departure, I asked a gate agent who informed us that the flight had been cancelled an hour earlier. The only problem was that they neglected to update the information at the gate or on the monitors, leaving passengers like me completely in the dark!

United Airlines

I don’t know where to begin with these clowns. No, partner awards cannot be booked online, you have to call them. They change their flights all the time, but I have never actually been notified of a change, despite leaving many different contact methods in my file.

Delta

Their online award calendar is completely broken. It has been so for years, and they know it. Nevertheless, they have taken few steps to fix it. Even when it does work, it only searches a small fraction of the available partner award flights.

All Airlines

It is just crazy how inefficient their search engines are, even for paid flights. It is not uncommon to wait a minute to retrieve results. Even then they are often inaccurate results that are displayed poorly. I want to know what aircraft I am flying, who is operating the flight, how long the flight is, and if it stops, where  and for how long. Is that too much to ask? Why should I have to drill down level upon level to learn such basic parameters of a flight. Don’t even get me started on trying to figure out the total price of the ticket.

Conclusions

Compared to other industries, airlines have some of the worst information technology infrastructure. Aside from actually operating the aircraft, information should be their specialty. Until airlines start partnering with some truly useful companies, I have little hope that they will ever catch up. When I wake up and hear that Delta has teamed with Google to offer customers search services of all revenue and award flights, I will then know that there is hope.

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