United: Merger progress, but a long way to go

May 18, 2011 - 2:14 PM
United Continental

Steve Reininger removes a sign with the old United Airlines logo to reveal the new logo featuring the Continental Airlines blue globe at a ticket counter at O'Hare International Airport, Tuesday, May 17, 2011. In addition to changing the signage at O'Hare Airport, the merging airlines will combine check-in kiosks at 83 airports Wednesday allowing travelers to check in for flights on either airline. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey)

It will be another year before United and Continental are really one airline. For now, they're trying to make it easier for travelers to navigate them separately.

On Wednesday, kiosks at 83 airports began allowing travelers to check in for flights on either airline. And at Chicago O'Hare, signs with United's old logo came down, replaced by United's name with Continental's blue globe.

United Continental Holdings Inc. has owned both airlines since October. It's merging them into a single airline flying under the United name, which will be the biggest in the world.

The two will operate separately until mid-2012, selling their own tickets primarily for flights on their own planes.

United's "Economy Plus" seating — coach seats with more legroom and space, for an extra charge — won't show up on Continental planes until early 2012. And the airline has said it expects to keep a mix of United's three-class service for international flights and Continental's two-class service for several years.

Most of the changes so far are cosmetic. The upgraded kiosks allow travelers to access either reservation system, even though none of the company's major computer systems have been integrated. The airline expects to have a combined reservations system — Continental's — by March 2012.

No frequent flier program for the combined airline has been announced, but frequent fliers can link their United and Continental accounts and combine miles.

Customers are now able to shop for flights, get seat assignments and check flight status on either United or Continental's website regardless of what airline they're flying. But travelers who are checking in are still re-directed to the website of the airline on which they're flying. And Continental's website will be around until mid-2012.

On May 1 both airlines got the same menu for on-board food purchases in coach, although the menus for business class are still different. The airlines will be serving the same coffee and beer selection starting in late summer.

Policies on baggage charges, flight changes, standby requests, and handling of unaccompanied minors are now the same. The airline has repainted 520 planes in the new livery, or about 40 percent of the fleet.

"It's much easier to paint airplanes on the outside than it is to get to a consistent on-board experience," said Scott O'Leary, the combined airline's managing director of customer solutions.

The airline is aiming to get its single operating certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration by the end of this year. But it will still have separate computer systems and Continental's code — its separate flight designator — into the second half of 2012, he said.

Henry H. Harteveldt, an airline analyst at Forrester Research, said United should have moved faster on things like putting Economy Plus seating onto Continental jets or getting satellite television on board United planes.

United is up against Delta, which has finished absorbing Northwest Airlines after its 2008 purchase and is now operating across six continents.

"Delta Air Lines is completely integrated," he said. "So if United doesn't start focusing on things that are really important instead of airport back-wall signage and cocktail napkins, then they will start losing business from both business and leisure travelers."