Saturday American Becomes the Biggest Airline in the World, and I’m Taking a Front Row Seat

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. “This merger solves the America West-US Airways integration mess at the same time it creates the world’s largest airline at American.”

    How does this merger affect the problems integrating pilot seniority lists between USA and AWE? Doesn’t it just make the further integration even more adversarial?

  2. Hey Gary, it’s Adam S. over at Point Me to the Plane. I also have a MR planned for this Saturday on several legacy routes. I will be in CLT in the morning and PHX in the evening.

    Was planning on doing a live update of sorts on how everything unfolded but if you are going to do that too, will just post comments to your post throughout the day.

    Have you been upgraded for any/all of your flights yet? I’m a ExPlat and no upgrades for me yet and the routes are wide open. Wondering if it’s a glitch.

  3. Flying RT to Atlanta next week from SYR. Outbound on an American route via ORD on Wed and back on legacy USAirways through CLT on Sunday. SYR is more USAirways than American, so we’ll see how their agents do. I know most of them by sight and I’ll ask. That should give me an interesting comparison a week or so in.

  4. @Adam S- I won’t really be live updating exactly since I’m flying legacy US Airways Express regional jets without internet (!) and may spend some time talking to US folks on the ground in Phoenix. So I’ll be posting on Saturday but not a ‘real time live’ kind of thing most likely.

    Haven’t been upgraded yet in either direction for Saturday.

  5. @Dave the seniority list struggles do continue although at the moment they aren’t halted by a court. However everyone gets a raise in this, and remaining legacy America West pilots are a minority of a minority. The pilot issue is far from over [senior list integration still needs to happen] but it is far more likely post-merger than it was without the merger.

  6. Gary, that sounds great! I would love to be doing the same thing. I would also be really interested in the behind the scenes action and what works and what doesn’t. I’m actually flying Friday tomorrow the 15th and then not again until the 19th. I actually booked all AA metal AA flights sort of on purpose; although AA has a much better same day change process than legacy US.

    I’m just, gardening my reservations, as you say today and there has been a good number of things to garden with American and Hyatt.

  7. 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.

    Possibly the greatest paragraph I’ve found on this blog. Good luck with the flights!

  8. I’d be curious to know the names of the company(ies) contracted to supervise the cutover. It would be great to be a fly on the wall in he “war room” for this process. I suspect t hat’s where the real action will be.

  9. If not for sheer BOREDOM, I don’t think anyone in the country would know the difference. Besides the boarding area crew of course!

    Stay safe.

    Glad to know that the employees are “happy” with the money we sent them.

    Not.

  10. Based on my experience on Wednesday, buckle up. My AA flight had a mechanical so I rebooked on a USAir flight from RNO-PHX-BWI, Went to get my ticket reissued at the USAir gate and the agent spent about 10minutes to print out boarding passes. Lots of puzzled looks at the screen and had to reprint boarding passes twice when moving me from row 23 to row 9.

    At PHX went to customer service to see where I was on the upgrade list and agent said they had not put my AA number in the system so another 5 minutes of typing and printing.

    Checking the AA app during the entire process it never even showed me with seats or displayed a list of those on the upgrade list.

    Add all these to the ongoing problems with the display of info on AA.com and I’s say it is going to be messy.

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