Why Did US Airways End Charges for Soda and Water? To Enhance Its Rep

Over the weekend, US Airways said it would stop charging for soda, water, coffee, and tea on March 1. You’ve probably read about this elsewhere by now, but it’s interesting to think about why they’re finally relenting on something that they held out on for months. It appears that this is a big shift in the US Airways strategy. The airline is now admitting that perception is important, and it is taking some seemingly small but actually big steps to fix their image problem.

In a world where airlines gladly charge for anything they can, US Airways surprisingly went it alone on this drink charge. No other major airline followed the lead to charge for soda and water. The airline resisted changing back despite all the criticism . . . until now. In the words of CEO Doug Parker:

We know customers don’t buy an airline ticket based on whether or not they will get a free soda onboard, but with US Airways being the only large network carrier to charge for drinks, we are at a disadvantage. More importantly, this difference in our service has become a focal point that detracts from all of the outstanding improvements in on-time performance and baggage handling that all of us have worked so hard to achieve over the past year.

This really is a big change, despite what they’re saying. It was just last September that the airline explained how happy it was with the change. President Scott Kirby went so far as to say that the flight attendants would “riot” if they went back to the old way. Talk about a change of direction, huh?

New US Airways Ad Campagin (er, not)

It appears that the airlines reputation and high level of consumer complaints have caused the about-face. US Airways has made excellent strides with its on-time performance lately, and overall reliability has been quite good, yet the airline still ranks toward the bottom of the list when it comes to complaints. In December, for example, US Airways had the second best on-time performance behind perennial leader Hawaiian Airlines. The airline canceled only 2.1% of flights in the very difficult month (poor weather) and reported fewer mishandled bags than the industry average. But when it comes to complaints, the airline finished next to last, just ahead of cellar-dweller United. So what’s going on?

At last year’s media day, the management claimed that they needed to focus on reliability, appearance, and convenience. Apparently, management has now realized that it’s not enough. They actually need to do more than that to keep people happy. They must have been receiving a fair number of complaints about charging for water and soda, so they relented. They’ll lose some money on this, but people will be happier. And that has now strangely become important to them. What a pleasant surprise.

They are also looking to address other sore spots. Instead of just being happy with a strong on time performance, they’ve actually decided they need to tell people about it. This is an airline that has really avoided brand advertising for years. But now they are actually finding some value in it, and they’re promoting their on time performance in several different types of media.

It’s a very interesting move for an airline that had been moving to a true a la carte model and had not put stock in brand advertising for many years. Personally, I would have thought that simply not charging for water would have been plenty. As long as people can get something to drink, they’ll be fine. But US Airways has decided to remove the charges from soda, coffee, and tea as well in order to boost the airline’s image. It will be interesting to see if the consumer complaint number starts to drop after this move.

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