Surprised? US Airways Is Doing Things Right

Something tells me I’m going to get a lot of flack for this post. I know there are plenty of people out there who think that US Airways is more evil than just about anything else on Earth, but I really think they’re doing a great job. You still with me? Before you faint or throw your keyboard into your monitor in anger, let me explain.

I know I’ve talked about this many times before. This isn’t your father’s US Airways (or USAir, or Allegheny, or . . . .) This is America West with a much bigger route structure and a strategy that they’re executing on quite well. As a refresher, here is the airline’s strategy as explained to us at this year’s Media Day.
08_03_03 usmediaday
First, let’s remember that I’m primarily talking about domestic flying here. So, schedule and price matter most as long as they are reliable, convenient, and have a respectable appearance. It sounds good to me, but then again, I’m not an old-school US Airways loyalist. If you go over to the US Airways board on FlyerTalk, you’d think that every reduction in benefits from previous levels is like a dagger being stuck in every frequent flier’s heart. But it’s not. It’s just different from what they’re used to. And yes, that’s going to alienate some people, but that’s the decision they’ve consciously made for the good of their business. (I mean come on; when was the old US Airways considered a model airline?!?)

What’s most important here is whether or not they can actually deliver on their simple strategy. So can they? Let’s start with reliability since that’s probably most important. On that front, they’re performing quite well, actually. Kudos are due to COO Robert Isom for bringing the airline back from the operational brink. Now that June DOT numbers are out, we know that the airline has been at the top of the charts for on-time performance for all of this year. Check out June in Philly. A chronically-delayed airport during the summer? Yeah, but US Airways still walked away with a 76.5% on time rate.

How about baggage? That was always the downfall of Philly in the past, but now they’re finishing in the middle of the pack throughout the system. June saw a rate of 4.65 bags lost per thousand passengers. That was good enough for 9th place (out of 19) but more importantly it was less than half last year’s abysmal 10.59. By the way, they’re also in 9th place for the full first half of the year, so this isn’t a one month anomaly.

So reliability is good. 08_08_12 usairwaysnotsobadAs for convenience, well, I don’t see them as being any better or worse than other airlines except that they do have a functional mobile site, something some airlines have yet to figure out. If they really want to become more convenient, they need to let me pay for these fees on the website at the time of booking. Then I’d be much happier. And appearance? Well, my understanding is that they’re sprucing up interiors on most of their planes. (They need it on some of those.)

Looking at this independently, you’d think US Airways would actually be a pretty good airline to fly, right? Then why does everyone seem to pile on the airline so much? Like I said, it’s because things are different now, and people don’t like change. This is why they never should have kept that name. That airline died during its second consecutive bankruptcy a couple years back.

Let’s look at this whole “charging for drinks” thing that has the nation in an uproar. Yes, they charge for drinks, but who says drinks should be included in your base fare? It’s just what you’re used to, and there’s nothing that says every airline should include drinks in your fare. US Airways is being up front about these things (except for that horribly shady booking fee on USAirways.com which still bothers me, if it’s still around). In general, they aren’t promising much and they’re delivering.

Let’s look at it another way. United and American like to act like they’re full service airlines, but they charge most of the same fees as US Airways does. On top of that, neither of those airlines got their planes to land on time more than 60% of the time in June. That’s a far bigger problem.

This doesn’t mean flying a fee-filled US Airways is for everyone. If you don’t like the fees, you can fly Southwest and, um, well, that’s about it these days. But if you don’t like paying for drinks, there are plenty of options. But for a lot of people, the lowest fare is what matters, and if US Airways has it, they’ll probably fly them. It’s not a strategy for every airline, and I’d certainly agree that this race to the fee-world opens up more opportunities for an all-inclusive experience at the other end, but it’s definitely a valid strategy that can work for the airline.

The bottom line is that as long as they keep running a solid operation, they’re going to remain a viable option for most domestic travelers. And if they keep beating the likes of United and American in on-time performance by 15 points, they’re going to become a preferred option, regardless of what fees they charge.

Edited 8/12 @ 1129a: For those who are new to the blog, I want to disclose that I worked at America West from 1997-2002 under the same management team that runs US Airways today. Robert Isom was my VP briefly at one point. I don’t believe this colors my view (I mean, I haven’t worked there in 6 years), but I wanted to make sure it was disclosed. If you’d like to see everywhere I’ve worked, you can always look at the about page.

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