By JOSHUA FREED, Associated Press
United Airlines passengers were still having difficulty getting a reservations agent on the phone and experiencing other glitches on Tuesday, more than three weeks after a computer switchover that was supposed to make traveling better after the airline's merger with Continental.
There were widespread reports of passengers waiting on hold to fix ticketing problems. Many said that they couldn't get through at all. Odd balances were showing up in frequent flier accounts.
On its website, United warned travelers that its call centers were getting "extraordinarily high call volumes," and that some customers were waiting on hold for more than an hour.
The airline said it had added 600 extra call center workers, and others were working overtime. It was also working to fix the problems that were prompting the calls in the first place. By Tuesday afternoon, average wait times were down to 10 minutes, according to airline spokeswoman Megan McCarthy, although that varied depending on time of day and weather disruptions.
Generally, passengers who didn't need to call the airline didn't appear to be running into trouble. But many customers trying to resolve an issue with a ticket or an upgrade found that calling to fix it turned out to be a patience-building exercise.
Stephen Eskins used a debit card last week to buy a ticket from Bakersfield, Calif., where he has an internship, to fly back home to Charleston, W.V. His bank told him he was overdrawn when the charge for the ticket hit his account twice.
Eskins ended up making several calls on Tuesday to sort it out. One United worker told him to talk to the refund department, while another told him there was no such thing. An email address he was given to get the charge reversed turned out to be invalid.
The whole reason he was flying on United was to use a $150 gift certificate he got from a previous snafu with the airline.
"After I used that I was planning on not ever flying with them again, just because stuff like this happens," he said.
United and Continental merged in 2010 to become United Continental Holdings Inc. An important part of turning them into one airline happened on March 3, when the company moved passenger data to what used to be Continental's computer system. It also merged frequent flier accounts that day.
Delays were high over that weekend as United workers struggled to learn Continental's software. United's on-time performance improved as the month went on. By Saturday March 24, FlightStats.com showed about 81 percent of United flights arriving on-time, compared with 89 percent for Delta Air Lines Inc.
Other problems persisted, though. According to the airline:
— Every time the airline's computer found discrepancies in passenger records, passengers were told to call in to fix it, flooding United's call center.
— United workers had to fix those discrepancies one-by-one.
— High-level frequent fliers are supposed to be put on a list for automatic upgrades to better seats, generally about four days before their flight. When their upgrades didn't come through, they started calling. The airline said most of the upgrade issues have been resolved.
— Many travelers weren't seeing accurate miles posted to frequent-flier accounts for flights under 500 miles. United fixed that on Saturday, McCarthy said.
March is a busy travel month for airlines, with spring-break travelers adding to the usual mix of business fliers and vacationers. United executives have said that they want to customize the airline for business travelers, who tend to pay more. So problems upgrading frequent fliers to better seats annoyed the very passengers that the airline was trying to impress.
"This merger has just been a disaster for customers," said Bill Ihle, a communications consultant who flies regularly from Medford, Ore., where he lives. On Monday he gave up after he couldn't log onto the airline's website with his frequent flier number to book a ticket.
Last week, while trying to book a different flight, a call center worker confused the airport he wanted to fly to — Fiumicino airport in Rome — with one in Japan. Ihle said the worker even suggested flying there on Japan's All Nippon Airlines, which is a United partner.
"At this point the level of confidence that you're going to get to Rome, Italy, as opposed to Rome, Georgia, is not very high," he said.
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