Is there an echo in here? Once again, an airline is under fire for poor performance. I swear, I don’t understand why columnists bother to write these stories over and over. They could just take the first one, slap a new airline name on it, and publish it again. So who is it now? US Airways.
We knew the merger problems would catch up to them at some point, and it looks like that time is now. They’ve been running a subpar operation for some time. That combined with merger integration issues makes for one big pain in the butt for travelers. What are the specific issues this time?
According to Dawn Gilbertson over at the Arizona Republic, the top issues are “unreliable flights; few answers or slow response to questions and complaints; Web-site glitches; and reduced frequent-flier benefits, from bonus mileage to fewer first-class seats.” Of course, management knows there are problems. Travis Christ, VP of Sales & Marketing admits, “So far, [customers are] putting up with this. It’s not too late.” That may be true, but once the media starts to pile on, you better get moving quickly.
Of course, the article has the obligatory list of things that US Airways is doing to fix the problems, but you know what? I don’t care. I mean, I do care as an airline dork and former employee (5 years removed), but as a silver member in the frequent flier program, I couldn’t care less. I don’t want to know what they have to fix to get things moving right. I just want them to be fixed. Come tell me about it when all is well.
Now, since the merger I guess I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had any big operational issues. My flights on the day of the reservation system merger were on time and there weren’t long lines, probably because I was in Phoenix and not in Charlotte. Almost all of my flights have been on time, or at least close enough, and I’ve only had bags lost once. Actually, my biggest problem is trying to use the website with the Firefox browser (which is unsupported, grrr). But of course, the numbers tell that the problems are much bigger than my own.
Ok, enough of this. Let’s assume they jump on this and fix the operational mess as we know they can. That’s great, but it’s still not going to make me happy. There are much bigger fundamental issues as far as I’m concerned.
The airline is stuck between a rock and a hard place. On one side, they have the old US Airways loyalists. These are people who want the full service treatment that comes with an old legacy carrier. On the other side, they have the old America West base which just wants things to be consistent and stay essentially the same as they were before US Airways showed up. Neither of them are going to be pleased.
For the old US Airways loyalists, they’re facing the realities of their airline trying to be a low cost carrier. Yes, there are fewer first class seats, and yes, there are fewer frequent flier perks. That’s part of the transformation process, and it’s going to drive some people away. For the old America West people like me, we’ve seen a lot more elite members show up from the other side and that makes it tougher to use our own benefits.
When it comes to being elite, I don’t care about the priority security lines (the regular ones don’t tend to be THAT long), or the priority check-in lines (I do it at home). I care primarily about first class upgrades. Well, since I became silver over a year ago, I’ve flown on 15 flights (excluding partners), and I’ve only been upgraded twice. Once was from Vegas to LA and the other from Phoenix to LA. Yippee. Only 10 of those flights even had first class sections since I was on regional jets for the rest.
So now I have to sit back and think about this. Why should I continue to be loyal to US Airways? Being in LA, I have plenty of options. I do a lot of traveling to Phoenix to see my family, and I have the usual trips to Vegas, the Bay Area, and Indianapolis. That leaves me with United or Southwest as being viable possibilities.
First I need to decide what exactly I’m getting from US Airways. Well, I get to fly out of Long Beach, which I do enjoy. But other than that, I get 31″ seat pitch (a proxy for legroom) and no amenities that really matter to me. Yeah I like a movie, but it’s not going to sway my decision.
If I switch my allegiance to United, at least I could sit in Economy Plus every time. That would at least get me a few more inches of legroom. And I could listen to air traffic control on Channel 9. That’s better than a movie any day! I could even continue to fly US Airways and earn United elite qualifying miles. The only difference is that I wouldn’t be able to upgrade on US Airways. If I’m not getting upgrades anyway, then this doesn’t seem like a hard decision to make between the two.
Or I could go with Southwest. These guys can get me to the Bay Area, Vegas, and Phoenix just about every 5 minutes. I get a inch or two more legroom than I get on US Airways, and I’ll always get a window if I get my A boarding pass. I can make changes to my itinerary without a change fee, and if I need to cancel a trip, the money just goes back into a credit that I can use in the future. Again, there’s no penalty, and I appreciate the flexibility.
So what does this mean? Well, I can’t say I speak for every silver member, but there have to be others like me. I’m loyal to US Airways for the free upgrades and convenient flight schedules. Since United and Southwest can offer similar schedules, it comes down to the upgrade. If they become harder to come by thanks to promotions that swell the ranks of elites combined with fewer first class seats, my reasons to stay loyal become less clear.
Sure, the top tier of elites will stick around. Those are the guys who get the upgrades. But the silver members may get more frustrated and begin to desert. US Airways is at a crossroads right now where the actual value they deliver to customers is being diminished. That concerns me more than the operational problems which I know they can fix.