If they awarded air sickness bags for bad airline service, US Airways would have won enough in March of last year for a bumpy flight out of Las Vegas on New Year's Day.
Nearly half its flights arrived late. The Tempe, Ariz., airline has posted the worst record for mishandling luggage among the 10 major carriers and the highest complaint rate.
Operations fell apart when a new reservations system, a milestone in the 2005 merger of America West and the old US Airways, crashed and disabled airport kiosks. Then snowstorms swept through its big East Coast cities as spring break got going.
So imagine the shock of airline reporters everywhere to see who was atop the government's on-time rankings for major carriers in the first quarter of this year.
Yep, US Airways. The airline ran 78.3 percent of its flights on time, compared with 70.8 percent for the industry. It outpaced Delta (75.8 percent) and Southwest (74.8 percent), usually top-three finishers.
How did US Airways right the ship? By emphasizing basic blocking and tackling for airport employees. By hiring a veteran operations guy from the outside. And by putting a little slack in flight schedules.
Customers seem happier. Even Bob Johnson, co-chair of a frequent flier group that has criticized US Airways for poor service, was pleased Tuesday. His flight from Philadelphia arrived early in Charlotte, N.C., and the connection touched down in Fort Lauderdale right on time.
He and other regulars are skeptical whether US Airways can keep it up with the prospect of another merger on the horizon. More about that later.
Problems at US Airways didn't end with an unlucky March 2007. The airline's performance — last among major airlines for running on time — was "dismal'' through summer, said Robert Isom, an industry veteran who took over as chief operating officer last September.
But employees were determined to turn it around, he says. It seems obvious that the key to arriving on time (defined by the federal government as less than 15 minutes late) is leaving on time. US Airways tightened up rules designed to make that happen. Passengers who don't check in within 30 minutes of departure time are booked on a later flight. Gate agents make sure customers are on the plane 10 minutes ahead, and the crew closes the door five minutes before the exact departure time.
US Airways also added to some published flight times. Critics call it "padding," a trick airlines use to make their on-time numbers. But Isom says the times are more realistic for cities like New York with crowded air space.
The airline scored a win for on-time performance in December and repeated in January and March. Its mishandled bag rate still lags behind the average but was better than Delta's and American's for the first quarter.
Airline service can slip for all kinds of reasons. Frequent fliers claimed that US Airways bosses lost focus while pushing a merger with United Airlines in 2000. They gave up 14 months later as the economy cooled and opposition from labor and regulators stiffened.
The two airlines are talking again amid reports that a new merger could be announced within days. Labor leaders and consumer advocates are lining up against a combination and the proposed Delta-Northwest merger. The economy … well.
Let's hope this group of US Airways bosses keeps its eye on the ball.
Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.