Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

To My Astonishment, US Airways Provides Good Service On 10 Out Of 10 Flights In April-June, 2006

Now that’s a headline I NEVER thought I’d be writing. That’s because US Airways and I have never had a good relationship over the course of four decades of flying.

In the 1970s and early 1980s I had a lot of clients in New York, Hartford, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, all in Allegheny Airlines country, predecessor name to today’s US Airways. Service was so surly that patrons bitterly nicknamed it Agony Airlines.

Sometime in the seventies the airline changed its name to US Air to shake off the bad reputation, but long-suffering frequent flyers then tagged it Useless Air. My experiences on Agony/Useless were typical; I dreaded every flight.

For instance, I remember one frigid, snowy January Sunday night flying into Pittsburgh from New York. Already more than an hour late, the plane landed and taxied to a dark spot on a distant ramp far from the old Pittsburgh terminal, which was always over-taxed. The pilot shut down both engines and all but emergency lights on board and announced that there were no gates for us and that we’d have to wait. No information on how long.

Without heat, pretty soon the plane’s interior was cold and getting colder. By the time an hour had passed (with no further announcements) there was near-panic on board, as the temperature plunged to the freezing point or below. Flight attendants, noted at Useless for their brusque and rude demeanors, barked at anyone who complained and refused to pass along messages to the cockpit.

At the ninety minute mark, engines were finally restarted, and we taxied to the gate. No apologies were made; no smiles given by the Useless Air staff, as we grumbling and frozen customers left the plane. Our luggage was delivered to the carousel an hour after that, making it a three and a half hour delay and an altogether miserable experience.

See what I mean? Service SO BAD that I vividly recall the details of that single flight after twenty-five years.

Unfortunately, there were many others like it.

Then Useless went on a buying spree to keep up with Joneses through the consolidation of the 1980s that followed deregulation. In the process it steam-rollered two of the best airlines then operating: Piedmont and PSA (Pacific Southwest Airlines). Both were renowned for their customer-friendly staff and marvelously efficient operations. I was a big fan of both airlines and flew on them whenever possible.

Today’s Southwest Airlines operations owes a lot to the profitable business models of Piedmont (all-coach 737s; lots of point-to-point, non-hub flights between and among second tier cities) and PSA (all-coach; invented 20-minute quick turns and made them work consistently at busy LAX and SFO).

But Useless in its arrogance ignored those lessons, and soon after buying each airline, gave the boot to the superb Piedmont and PSA managers who had perfected their respective business models, models that had been profitable and attracted customers in droves. Soon former Piedmont and PSA routes and flights were as uniformly miserable as all US Air so-called service.

So it was that I assiduously avoided flying on the carrier for twenty years (not so long ago renamed US Airways in yet another attempt to outrun its soiled reputation). Then American Airlines involuntarily rerouted me on US Airways when AA’s own service failed, forcing me onto 10 US flights in April, May, and June.

The desire to get home to my family overcame my sense of repulsion at flying again on a carrier I despised, but I approached the first flight with the same eager anticipation of a man on the way to his own hanging.

Imagine my surprise to find friendly and helpful airport personnel at every station encountered (Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; Charlotte; Philly; Washington Reagan; Raleigh/Durham; and Toronto, Ontario). In each case, since every William Allen on earth is on the terrorist watch list (as explained in my June 30 posting), airport check-in counter personnel were required to take special steps to release a boarding pass to me.

Of course I am not an elite flyer on US. Yet with no status whatsoever these staff bent over backwards to help me. And they were friendly and kind and looked me in the eye and treated me like a HUMAN BEING! I liked them, and I have not said that about airline employees in a long time.

Well, I thought, I still have to fly their flights; surely they will be late, and on-board service will be nonexistent or rude.

Not so. All planes but one were on time, and that one was due to a mechanical problem that required a replacement aircraft (at DCA), which was handled quickly. The cabin crews cared about us and for us. There were whiffs of the old Piedmont service: casual, relaxed, cordial, whatever it takes to make you happy. And the cockpit crews kept us informed all the way and sounded as if they really cared about us, too.

I changed planes at four busy US Airways stations: Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Charlotte, and Washington Reagan. Gate personnel there were extra-helpful, if woefully understaffed and overworked. Their attitude, in stark contrast to, say, what I find at American Eagle’s LaGuardia operation, was focused on giving information freely, rebooking if necessary (I was automatically backed up on the flight with a mechanical without having to ask), and being just plain friendly and helpful.

Somehow the people I encountered at US Airways seem to have turned a corner: They actually look at their customers as central to their success. I was happily surprised and very encouraged.

Yes, this could be an anomaly. But, sadly, my history flying is to attract bad luck, not good. I wish US Airways good luck, and I intend to shift some of my flying to them.


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