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Cathay Pacific 'cutover' snagged by system snafus

With apologies to Robert Burns, it’s said that the best laid plans often go awry — and nowhere is that more true than when airlines decide to upgrade or otherwise change their reservation systems.

Case in point: Cathay Pacific Airways undertook a so-called “cutover” a week ago, but is still dealing with technical issues and frustrated passengers who can’t get through to the airline to manage their travel.

For Kevin McInroy-Edwards of Portland, Ore., the snafu threatens a trip that’s been in the works for almost four years. Saving up frequent-flier miles on Cathay Pacific partner Alaska Airlines, he bought four first-class tickets for a family trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, early next month.

However, due to the way award seats are released, he had to settle for two first-class and two business-class tickets, meaning his two children, ages 10 and 11, would be in a separate class. However, he also knew that more first-class seats would be released in the weeks before their trip.

“We know the seats are there; it’s just that nobody can get them for us,” he told msnbc.com. “It’s like a ritual; we start calling at 5 a.m. and call four or five times a day, every day. Even Alaska can’t get through to them.”

As of Monday, Presidents’ Day, neither Cathay Pacific nor Alaska Airlines were available for comment, although the former’s website refers to the problem as “teething issues” affiliated with the system migration.

Passengers with near-term reservations are directed to manage their bookings online — not possible for those traveling on partner award tickets — while others are directed to call the airline “at a later date when call volumes will have subsided.”

Such instructions are of little comfort for McInroy-Edwards and others like him who have planned trips far in advance only to find their reservations caught in the switches, so to speak, of data migration. And Cathay Pacific is hardly the first carrier to run into problems during such “upgrades.”

In 2007, the merger between US Airways and America West was knocked sideways when the two carriers tried to integrate their reservation systems, crashing kiosks and stranding passengers, and just last fall, Virgin America suffered months of glitches— mysterious reservation changes, no frequent-flier access, etc. — after “upgrading” its system.

At issue are the back-end systems the airlines use to manage their reservation processes and the inherent challenges of melding multiple systems or shifting from a carrier-specific legacy program to a larger Global Distribution System (GDS), such as those operated by Amadeus or Sabre. Cathay Pacific, for example, is migrating from its own “homegrown” system to one managed by Amadeus.

Presumably, the bugs at Cathay Pacific will eventually be worked out, although travelers are advised that IT-integration will always be an issue when airlines upgrade their systems or merge them with another carrier’s.

Another case in point: On March 3, United and Continental will take the next step in their ongoing merger, when the former switches from Apollo, its current GDS, to SHARES, the system used by the latter.

Management promises a smooth transition but, as the rest of that long-ago Robert Burns poem notes, even the best-laid plans can lead to “nothing but grief and pain.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.