If the computer crashes that stranded hundreds of US Airways passengers last weekend are any indication, local travelers should fasten their seat belts.
The meltdown resulted from US Airways' merging its Sabre computer reservations system into a modified version of America West's Shares computer system, a decision made by the post-merger management of the now Arizona-based airline.
Unfortunately, after what we assume was a long-considered transition plan, automatic ticketing kiosks at East Coast airports last Sunday had trouble processing the changed information and shut down. Ticket-seeking passengers swamped the ticket counters, resulting in long lines and missed flights.
Waits in Charlotte -- where most passengers rely on the kiosks -- Philadelphia and Boston were three hours and longer. Lines in Pittsburgh, where US Airways still accounts for over half of the daily flights, were up to 90 minutes long.
Although US Airways employees were trained on the new system, the airline apparently didn't advise them to anticipate glitches until 48 hours before the switch. Nor were airport staffs significantly boosted to handle any resulting crush. Finally, while frequent flyers were advised of the pending computer change in advance, the airline did not publicize the date beforehand nor advise travelers to get to the airport extra early that day.
Even worse was US Airways' response when things began to go awry early Sunday morning. They were slow to own up to and address the mounting problems.
According to Joe Brancatelli, a travel industry observer who had sent out an alert on March 1 about potential for problems, as of 1 p.m. last Sunday, the carrier still wasn't informing passengers about delays on its Web site. A travel advisory posted later that afternoon on USAirways.com blamed delays on "heavy passenger volume and long check-in lines," even though as Mr. Brancatelli noted, "there is no evidence at all" that passenger volume was any heavier than usual.
Problems with the kiosk system persisted well into the week.
Is this any way to run a major airline?
If this switch glitch is indicative of how US Airways' management will handle the other enormously complicated logistics of merging flight operations of its two primary carriers, there is cause for real concern. It certainly seems we should be thankful that its hostile attempt to take over Delta did not succeed.
This incident becomes even more ironic coming on the heels of another recent announcement.
The International Air Transport Association, which manages the complex financial transactions that allow the world's myriad airlines to work together, recently announced that it intends to stop providing the paper ticket stock to airlines by the end of the year. Apparently, paper tickets are going the way of the buggy whip.
According to the association, electronic tickets or E-tickets, which have been around nearly a decade, now account for 96 percent of ticketing transactions of U.S. airlines and 77 percent of foreign carriers.
Most domestic carriers, including US Airways, Northwest and American, already charge $50 for passengers who insist on getting a printed ticket for a reservation when an electronic option is available.
There's no question that E-tickets offer distinct advantages over paper tickets: they're far cheaper and easier to process, theft-proof and allow passengers to check in and get a boarding pass from their home or office computer or at airport kiosks.
Assuming of course, there are no electronic malfunctions. Sadly, last weekend's snafus show that is a questionable assumption.
The reality is that E-tickets don't offer passengers the same proof of purchase or transferability that paper tickets did. Since electronic boarding passes can't be obtained more than 24 hours prior to departure, securing the documentation for a return trip always has to be done either en route or at check-in at the return airport, at which point it will be difficult for passengers to respond to flight changes or computer meltdowns.
Furthermore, while a paper flight coupon could be used to get an alternative flight on another carrier, a reservation code or a passenger-printed electronic boarding pass from one carrier won't mean anything at all to a different airline. Rather than a widely accepted form of currency, it's just another piece of paper.
While no one is advocating a return to paper tickets, the credibility of any currency certainly depends on its reliability. This recent incident indicates that passengers may be putting their "full faith and trust" in the less than rock solid species of E-tickets.
Let's hope this was an isolated aberration rather than a preview of coming distractions. Otherwise, we're in for a rough ride indeed.
Post-Gazette travel editor David Bear can be reached at 412-263-1629 or firstname.lastname@example.org .