I have relatives in Philadelphia who, in the five-plus years I've known them (they're my wife's aunt and uncle) have often railed about poor service on US Airways and have tried to avoid flying them because of it. This type of reaction would have come as no surprise to the new leadership of US Airways after America West took it over in 2005. When I attended the annual US Airways Media Day in March 2006, CEO Doug Parker and other airline executives talked a lot about the need to improve the airline's service, including its baggage handling. At the time, US Airways had improved its mishandled baggage rate, but U.S. Transportation Dept. (DOT) statistics showed it still ranked last among the major carriers, and problems with baggage handling in Philadelphia were a big part of the reason.
I mention this now because the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report in February, showed that US Airways finished second only to Southwest among the major U.S. carriers in on-time performance on domestic flights for all of 2008. As US Airways has gone to great lengths to emphasize, its 80.1% on-time performance made it first among the "Big Six" hub-and-spoke carriers (American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United and US Airways). It also points out that, among all carriers including Southwest, it posted the best on-time performance at its Philadelphia, Charlotte and Phoenix hubs. In 2007, US Airways had ranked last among the major carriers in on-time performance at 68.7%.
US Airways has launched a media blitz to make sure everyone knows how much its performance has improved. That has included a series of advertisements in national newspapers such as USA Today, and full-page newspaper ads and radio station traffic report sponsorships in "hub cities" such as Phoenix, Charlotte, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.. The full-page ads are scheduled to run several times, and US Airways also has been running daily banners on some national and hub city online news sites and has put up billboard advertisements in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Charlotte. (The performance also is highlighted on the airline's website.)
US Airways has not said anything about its baggage handling ranking in the DOT report, and that's understandable: it's still nowhere near number one. It did, however, improve dramatically, so I'll give the airline some props here. In 2007 US Airways ranked worst among the major carriers with 8.47 mishandled baggage reports per 1,000 passengers. In 2008 that number dropped to 4.77. Granted, that still placed them seventh among the major carriers, but it placed them above United, American and Delta. US Airways has put a particular emphasis on improving its baggage handling performance in Philadelphia, and put money behind the effort to buy new equipment to make it better there.
Okay, now here's the cold water. Aside from the room for continued improvement in its baggage handling, US Airways is going to have to show it can maintain its improved on-time performance, part of which has been the result of financial incentives for its employees and operational changes. Lost in this year's hoopla is that, although the airline went from worst to nearly first in on-time performance in 2008, it also had ranked second (to Southwest) among the major U.S. carriers in on-time performance in 2006.
Then there's this: A month-long media blitz is not going to be enough to convince everyone the airline's performance has gotten that much better, and there is a lot more to customer service than getting customers to their destination on time (or even getting them there on time and delivering their checked baggage intact). For example, a few days ago I asked my aunt-in-law in Philadelphia what she thinks of US Airways service now, and whether its 2008 on-time performance changes her view of the carrier.
Her response would not give US Airways much comfort. "I will tell you," she wrote, "that they are still my LAST choice for air travel." Her biggest gripe with US Airways, she said, is not with its on-time performance, but with attendants she has found to be "uniformly rude," as well as what she said has been the airline's failure to provide informational updates on delays and her hour-long waits for checked bags to arrive on the carousel.She also mentioned flights that were canceled or changed the last few times she and her husband traveled.
But here's a ray of hope for US Airways, even with my aunt. She also said she was "impressed" with the 2008 on-time performance. "It will make me think about them a bit more," she said.