Mar 2, 2012 6:45 AM by AP
The last Continental flight takes off on Friday, and the airline that was once one of the nation's biggest will all but disappear into United Airlines.
United and Continental merged in 2010, but until this Saturday, passengers almost could have missed it. The big change occurs early Saturday when United combines passenger reservation data from both airlines into one massive computer system. That means one frequent-flier program and one website. Tickets will be issued under United's name only.
The switch is a huge undertaking that has its risks. Any hiccups could mean delays throughout the airline's system. That's why United conducted four dress rehearsals with executives staying overnight at headquarters to make sure things went well.
Here are the changes:
CONTINENTAL'S LAST FLIGHT
Continental flight 1267 is scheduled to depart from Phoenix at 11:59 p.m. PST on Friday. It's set to arrive in Cleveland as United 1267 Saturday morning.
The airline will stop using Continental's "CO" code. That means no more Continental Airlines tickets, or flights - even though the Continental name is still painted on some planes.
AT THE AIRPORT
The names of both airlines have been on signs at gates at its 10 hubs. By Saturday, it's aiming to take down the "Continental" signs at all 372 airports it serves.
Until now, each airline issued its own tickets, and passengers had to use separate ticket counters. Now, it will no longer matter which ticket counter travelers go to. Gate agents should be able to book travelers on flights across the combined airline, which will be a big improvement any time a blizzard or thunderstorm snarls travel.
The change will also mean that airline workers can send planes from either airline to any of their gates. Previously, gate computers had been connected to separate reservation systems and they couldn't handle planes from the other airline.
The systems are combining under the name of United's MileagePlus frequent-flier program. Travelers who have accounts at both airlines will essentially be credited for their Continental OnePass miles in their combined MileagePlus account. But their MileagePlus account numbers will be those from OnePass.
As for passwords, PIN numbers and addresses - some of those will transfer and some won't. United has emailed frequent fliers about the details.
United.com becomes the website for the combined airline. But its look and feel is the old Continental.com. Passengers will be able to use it to check in, regardless of which airline issued their ticket.
The websites are set to go dark at 2 a.m. EST Saturday. United is aiming to have the switch done in time for travelers to check in for 6 a.m. EST flights. The airline says travelers who check in on the old United.com for Saturday flights should see their check-in transfer over to the new system.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG
Plenty. There's a reason United held those dress rehearsals. Five years ago, US Airways Group's reservations system merger with America West went haywire. Hundreds of check-in kiosks didn't work, forcing passengers to use ticket counters. The snafu delayed flights around the US Airways system for days.
Virgin America's switch to a new reservation system in October caused problems that lingered for months.
"This transition is extremely complex and there is a strong likelihood for significant flight delays and cancellations," the head of the Air Line Pilots Association's United unit in San Francisco warned pilots in an email.
Jay Pierce, the head of the ALPA unit at Continental, said in an interview that the airline "actually has done a fairly decent job of advising all the employees that there's a potential for disruptions and possible problems." The company has asked employees not to use their discounted travel benefit over the weekend, to help keep volume low, he said.
The airline moves an average of 264,000 passengers per day. It picked a Saturday for the switch because traffic is as much as 15 percent lighter than on weekdays. It further reduced the number of United flights because those are the flights that are switching to Continental computers.
"We have tested an incredible amount of scenarios across the enterprise and I feel very, very comfortable we will be able to service customers better starting this weekend," said Martin Hand, United's senior vice president for passenger experience.
BEHIND THE SCENES
United must still schedule flight crews from each airline separately because it doesn't yet have union contracts to cover the combined groups. US Airways has been operating that way since its 2005 America West merger.
Pilots from both United and Continental have already been using the "United" radio handle with air traffic controllers, and flight attendants have been announcing flights onboard as United flights, even if passengers walked past a "Continental" sign to get on the plane.
The parent company's name, United Continental Holdings Inc., stays the same.