I’m planning to fly American Airlines — on a legacy US Airways route — on Saturday morning. That’s the day when US Airways flights become American flights, and so American Airlines as a single airline will be the largest carrier in the world.
I’m flying out and back to a former US Airways hub city on the day the two airlines are combining as one in order to see the merger integration in action. On the whole airlines do not have a very good track record at this, although indications so far are that American’s is going very well.
I’ll be on a 6 a.m. flight so I can watch the start of the day, I’ll leave security on arrival and poke around, and take in the airport experience as passengers fly and employees operate as American Airlines for the first time.
Wish me luck.
US Airways Becomes American Airlines on October 17
US Airways disappears as a brand in the skies on Saturday. It will live on in airports (as signage especially at outstations may take some time to replace) and on planes (as the last US Airways aircraft isn’t expected to be painted over with ‘American’ for a year) and there will still be some back end US Airways systems still running but there will be no more US Airways flights.
The US Airways name will be retired with flight US 1939 (the airline was founded in 1939) flying on Friday October 16 Philadelphia to Charlotte to Phoenix to San Francisco and then a redeye flight from San Francisco to Philadelphia arriving 6:18 a.m. on Saturday.
While the name will go away, it’s US Airways (née America West) management that are largely running the combined enterprise.
Already though the US Airways Dividend Miles frequent flyer program has been retired — that was folded into American AAdvantage back in March.
Combining the airlines in stages has meant reducing the risk that they screw it up. It’s also a higher-cost approach. The airline has primarily been focused on integration for nearly two years, and that means they haven’t done as much to do things like optimizing which planes fly which routes (a smaller US Airways aircraft may be better suited for a route traditionally flown by American and vice versa) that is where the ‘merger synergies’ are supposed to come from.
But the challenge in front of them has in many ways been greater than in past mergers, because in a very real sense they were combining 3 airlines and not just 2 — America West and US Airways never fully integrated despite their merger a decade ago. This merger solves the America West-US Airways integration mess at the same time it creates the world’s largest airline at American.
The even greater project was daunting considering the mess other airlines have made of their mergers.
The Horror of Recent Airline Mergers
When United and Continental combined systems three and a half years ago reservations disappeared, miles went missing, and telephone hold times stretched for hours. The United-Continental merger still hasn’t completed — their flight attendant work groups remain on separate contracts, and employees still identify themselves based on their airline they worked for 5 years ago and not as working for United today.
When America West and US Airways combined reservation systems I made a point of flying.
Because I’m a masochist. I wanted to see the process first hand.
Customers were told to avoid long airport lines by checking in online, but the website didn’t work. Neither did the kiosks. Lines stretched interminably around the airport in Fort Lauderdale where I was attempting to fly from. I ultimately tipped a skycap to check me in. They depend on tips, so they were sure to be familiar already with the legacy America West reservation system they now had to use.
For US Airways-America West it was much worse than that, though. They pretty much shut down their ability to sell international tickets on partners. America West’s SHARES system didn’t have an international package and couldn’t see Star Alliance partners. The legacy America West agents had virtually no experience with international travel. They had to add international to the legacy platform they moved to, and it involved syncing between CARE (the Sabre system which US Airways had been on) and the America West SHARES.
Add in reservations involving international partners and agents found themselves losing seat assignments and even incorrectly reissuing tickets without all of a customer’s segments. US Airways agents got a three day Qik Conversion class, with one day on international. Nearly everything required the rates department to price.
In fairness, the Delta-Northwest cutover at the beginning of 2010 was much smoother. It wasn’t perfect, I recall lots of griping about lost seat assignments. But if this goes well it wouldn’t be the first to do so — though it would certainly be the largest.
American Has Already Cleared the Big Data Hurdles
There are data challenges, and there are training challenges. American has already done a fantastic job, all things considered, on the data side. They migrated 30+ million Dividend Miles records over to AAdvantage, and even dealt with the challenge of both airlines using 7 alphanumeric character account numbers (and thus likely had a large overlap in account numbers).
And they started selling all US Airways flights as American flights 3 months ago, before 90% of tickets had been sold. As a result there were only a small subset of reservations that had to be moved over from the US Airway system to the American system.
Meanwhile, during that 90 day period, they tested running US Airways flights off the American system.
They’ve done as much as they can on the technology side to prepare, and they’ve already accomplished much of what they need to do. Which doesn’t mean everything will go smoothly once former US Airways employees are running flights and dealing with passengers off of the American Airlines system.
What We Get to See Starting Saturday is Agent Training in Action
Agents have had training on their new systems. But United-Continental and America West-US Airways did training, too. I expect that the technology will work better for American’s integration, because most of that work is already done and because they’re using a more functional system.
US Airways employees will be using the Qik overlay to the reservation system that they are familiar with to keep things easy. It automates lots of functions, which isn’t great for getting agents to bend the rules unfortunately but makes tasks easier to accomplish. While agents will be working on platform they’re less familiar with, it will be with a familiar GUI interface that automates most of what they need to do.
There’s a “command center” they’ll be staffing through October 27 to monitor systems, and they have extra staff at airports and in reservation call centers. I’ll definitely be checking telephone wait times Saturday morning.
The good news is everything should work. American won’t say it yet, that’s the sort of hubris that’s unwise when a million things could still go wrong. But odds on things won’t go wrong.
What I expect is simply a need to be patient as US Airways folks settle in as American. It may take a few extra key strokes and a call to a support desk while they get comfortable with the systems they are working with.
American reduced their schedules in Phoenix, Charlotte, and Philadelphia for Saturday. It’s a light travel day, and they’ll have more employees on hand working fewer flights in order to get things moving.
And American sent out emails to folks flying on Saturday, letting them know they can’t use their last name to look up a reservation…
Hopefully there’ll be limited bumps in the road, and on Saturday I’ll be wondering what I bothered to get up early for.