By: Janel Forte
United Continental Holdings, Inc. is looking to ground its longtime reputation for embarrassing technical snafus.
The Chicago-based airline’s problems date back to United Airlines’ 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. Combining the two rivals’ extremely incompatible computer systems has turned out to be much more difficult than anyone imagined. The still-to-be-completed systems integration has spawned a series of embarrassing and costly problems for the combined carrier.
The merged airline began having problems not long after its initial takeoff. On Father’s Day weekend of 2011, United left thousands of enraged passengers stalled after a computer problem caused passenger information to disappear from airport databases. More incidents would follow, each drawing headlines and taking a toll on the carrier’s reputation.
“There’s been multiple major meltdowns,” said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting. “But that’s what happens when you combine two large airlines with very different IT systems.”
Now the holding company is bringing in a new chief information officer – the third person to hold the post since the merger – to solve the problem.
The new tech boss is Linda Jojo, a former CIO of Rogers Communications, Energy Future Holding, Flowserve Corp. and GE Silicones. Her job is to ensure the next wave in the airline’s long-troubled IT integration avoids more turbulence. Jojo succeeds 54-year-old Bob Edwards, who announced his retirement earlier this year.
“[Jojo] will certainly have her hands full with both the computer reservation system and the global distribution system,” said Mary Tabacchi, a Cornell University professor who instructs a course on airline economics.
Jojo has a reputation as a fixer-upper with an ability to lead complex IT organizations. She has won numerous accolades for her work including two 21st Century Achievement Awards and three CIO 100 awards for transformation and innovation.
Tabacchi noted that Jojo will also have to use her IT expertise to “strengthen intra-company communication IT systems.”
The problems that surfaced after the merger have been long winded. In March 2012, United and Continental combined its reservations system resulting in flight cancellations, delays, faulty airport kiosks and jammed phone lines lasting several weeks. The IT problems persisted throughout 2012, significantly impacting the airline’s profitability and earnings.
Skies looked like they were clearing for the airline in 2013. For the fiscal year, United reported its first profit since the merger. Despite that uptick, however, the smooth sailing would not last. United still needed to integrate maintenance systems and its pilot database, as well as fix ongoing issues with its integrated reservation system. Much of that task remains undone — nearly four years after the merger.
In February of this year, United suffered yet another computer malfunction after implementing a new “crew communication system,” that misfired, stranding pilots and causing flight cancellations. Its next wave of consolidation will be migrating its mechanics to a single IT system on a fleet-by-fleet basis.
When asked for comment, United officials declined to provide any additional information about Jojo’s new role at present. Jojo was also unavailable.
The new executive vice president faces a daunting task. “This could be an iceberg working to meet the surface,” said Hamlin. “Jojo’s challenge will be to make everything happen that hasn’t occurred yet – and to make it work.”