The carrier is leaning on Amadeus IT Group SA to resolve issues with its Altea program that replaced Southwest’s 30-year-old, mostly home-grown technology. There have been at least five technical outages since August, with most of those blocking passengers from accessing the airline’s website to check in or manage reservations.
“This is not something we’re casually taking and saying, ‘Oh it will be fine. Don’t worry about it.’ It’s something that we’re actively working,” Southwest President Tom Nealon said in an interview. While the problems aren’t widespread and don’t constitute a crisis at this point, he said, “it’s a hassle and it’s frustrating.”
The Dallas-based carrier prepared three years for the transition — its biggest technology update ever. Though the final switch to the new system was made in May, Southwest began using some of the new tools to book customers as far back as December 2016.
A Southwest executive moved up a planned visit with Amadeus to January from February, with the service interruptions “on top of the agenda,” Nealon said.
“The support structures and the support processes are, honestly, still being worked and reworked because we’re finding some things we weren’t catching,” he said.
Altea, which helps manage airline flight reservations, inventory and departure-control capabilities, is used by more than 130 airlines worldwide, according to its website. It began handling Southwest’s international flights in 2014. Amadeus competes with Sabre Corp. and Travelport Worldwide Ltd.
Even so, “anytime you do massive re-engineering like that, you introduce the opportunity for error,” said Bob Offutt, a principal of Travel Technology Consulting. Issues can range from “not having sufficient capacity to not having enough tools to monitor instrumentation to make sure you can see where there are problems in the system.”
Passenger check-in, boarding, baggage handling, seat inventory management and re-accommodating travelers are among the functions shifted to Amadeus. With the update, Southwest can change fares and vary flight schedules more easily. Greater efficiency and new capabilities should help Southwest to earn back its investment by 2020, the airline has said.
Amadeus, which confirmed Southwest is its largest client based on passengers boarded, declined to comment. The Madrid-based company has been “incredibly responsive and very open to our suggestions,” Nealon said.
The problems so far haven’t had a “meaningful” impact on revenue, he said.
Reservation system changes are “incredibly difficult,” particularly because they often involve new technology interfacing with older core systems, said Bob Edwards, a former United Airlines chief information officer. Several airlines have experienced problems when switching to a new system or combining them after a merger.
Customers couldn’t access Southwest’s website for part of Jan. 12. On Nov. 27, passengers also couldn’t use the website to buy tickets or change itineraries, an issue the airline said also affected other Amadeus customers. The next day there were unrelated problems with checking in for flights from mobile devices and email links sent to some customers.
The system failed to automatically award priority boarding to Southwest’s most-frequent travelers over several days in August. Earlier that month, a glitch blocked delivery of pre-takeoff information to aircraft, delaying flights.
Amadeus’s booking system suffered what the company called a “network issue” on Sept. 28, affecting flights at Southwest, British Airways, Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. and Qantas Airways Ltd.
–With assistance from Rodrigo Orihuela