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Problems plague United Airlines

It was an unusually bright, sunny day at Chicago O'Hare Airport as passengers at Gate B9 of Terminal 1 waited to board the Boeing 757 that was docked at the gate.

The flight schedule monitor in the terminal said United Airlines Flight 629 to San Francisco would leave on schedule.

The monitor was wrong.

A gate attendant fired up the public address system. "We have a new departure time. They're taking this plane away," she said, offering no further explanation. The 12:17 p.m. flight would be delayed to 1:30, she said.

Passengers crammed into seating near the gate let out a collective groan.

The scene is one that has played out time and again on United Airlines flights since United and Continental combined in a $3.2 billion deal to form the world's largest carrier, and especially since it had a trouble-plagued conversion to a new computer system March 3. The move was the biggest yet in weaving together two mega-airlines in the wake of a massive recession and in the midst of rocketing jet fuel prices.

United, Chicago's dominant carrier, is the most complained-about airline in America by far, according to the latest statistics from U.S. Department of Transportation.

During March, United's on-time performance was worst among the major legacy airlines in the United States, according to those same statistics. Among large, full-fare airlines, United rates worst in mishandled bags and denied boardings, a term for passengers who hold confirmed reservations but are bumped from a flight because it is oversold.

To see what United's troubles might portend for the busy summer travel season, I took a two-day excursion from Chicago to San Francisco to Las Vegas to Houston and back to Chicago to witness firsthand the passenger experience at United Airlines. The trip involved some 25 hours of flying time and waiting at airports, including three of United's hub airports.

Overall, the trip was a microcosm of what United passengers say and what the industry statistics suggest: Flights on United Airlines nowadays can go relatively smoothly, but if there's a problem, things can go very wrong in a hurry.

United officials know the recent industry stats aren't good and concede the airline is dealing with problems.

"We've got to improve," said Martin Hand, United's senior vice president of customer experience. "The last year and a half to two years have been a challenge, no doubt about it."

Hand pointed out that other carriers had similar problems, and poor rankings, when they merged, but they later improved. "We are absolutely focused on improving the customer experience," he said.

United officials are examining every way the customer interacts with the airline, from the first point of contact the customer has with the airline, such as searching for fares on the website and booking a ticket, through picking up luggage at baggage claim after a flight, Hand said.

"I wish I could flip a switch and make it happen overnight," he said of United's efforts to fix problems. "This is going to be a journey."

My journey in mid-May did not start well at O'Hare.

After the delay announcement at Gate B9, a queue immediately formed at the gate agent counter, mostly passengers who would miss their connecting flights in San Francisco and needed to rebook on later flights.

Me included.

Among those waiting in line was Carole, a San Francisco-based lawyer and consultant who was en route from Syracuse, N.Y., back to the West Coast. (She didn't want her last name used because she sometimes works with airlines and didn't want to jeopardize business, she said.)

"I fly United all the time. I'm very loyal," Carole said. "But every time in the last six weeks that I've flown, the flight has either been canceled or delayed. Every. Single. Flight."

She said that was five straight flights.

On March 3, United switched to a computer system called Shares. In a rip-off-the-bandage approach, United on the same day also merged websites and frequent-flier programs. The airline experienced technology glitches and rampant inefficiencies throughout the system. The results were widespread flight delays for several days and customer inconveniences, such as long phone hold times, for weeks afterward. Frequent fliers howled about problems with their rewards accounts and confirming their proper seat upgrades.

Continental employees had used Shares and knew the system. United gate agents generally had not and did not, aside from the recent training they received.

Hand, the United official, said it has been a challenge to retrain longtime workers on a new computer system. It's most apparent when things go wrong, such as flight delays and cancellations, something the industry calls "irregular ops." Now, more than two months after the conversion, United is conducting a second round of training to fill in gaps and help struggling employees.