Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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US Airways Finally Morphs Into American Airlines
July 16, 2015 --The dog days of summer flying--long delays, abrupt cancellations, wicked storms and clueless leisure travelers--have begun and the world's largest airline has an additional surprise: a change of computer systems.
Almost two years after US Airways engineered a reverse merger with American Airlines, the combined carrier this weekend begins the final and trickiest part of the integration: merging the so-called "passenger service systems." The PSS (business travelers just call them "the reservation computers") switch entails moving the operations of both airlines onto a single system for day-to-day operations.
Does that scare you? It should. PSS changes tend to be disasters. The most recent one, when United and Continental combined in 2012, was an epic fail. United is still causing customer pain years later as evidenced by last week's computer failure that grounded its fleet for hours. And the guys now running American — they're the former honchos of America West — have a bad track record. Their 2007 combination with US Airways was awful.
But don't cancel all your travel in the next few weeks and hide under your desk. For a variety of reasons, a cautious approach to this final chapter of the American Airlines merger saga should yield comparative painless travel.
Lessons have been learned
Airlines have pooched this process so often that they have, finally, learned from their mistakes. Both the United-Continental and US Airways-America West fiascoes were partially caused by management insistence that the bigger carrier be switched onto the (cheaper) computer systems of the smaller airline. Not this time. US Airways, the much smaller airline, is moving onto American's PSS operation. That means fewer fliers at risk for a glitch.
Secondly, American Airlines has junked the so-called "knife-edge" cutover that entails moving all operations onto a new system during a single overnight. For one thing, Dividend Miles, the US Airways frequent flier program, has already been folded into American AAdvantage. (Many United and Continental customers who weren't flying on cutover day in 2012 nevertheless freaked out when their frequent flier balances weren't combined, but had temporarily disappeared.) Most of the corporate contracts that our bosses cut with US Airways and American Airlines have already been coordinated, too. Most importantly, American is opting for a process it calls "drain down." Instead of the overnight transition from two airline platforms into a single system, the computer operations for American and US Airways flight operations will be coordinated over 90 days starting this Saturday, July 18.
Death by disuse
The 90-day drain down is key to what American bosses hope will be a smooth transition. The reason: only 5 to 10 percent of tickets are booked more than 90 days in advance, so the pool of potential fliers affected by the switch is theoretically minimal.
If you are currently holding an American or US Airways ticket for a flight between now and October 16, you should see no change. If you book an American Airlines flight anytime in the future, you should also see no change. The process is different for US Airways customers, however.
If you book a US Airways flight between now and October 16, you should see no changes. But starting Saturday, if you try to book US Airways flight beyond October 16, you'll actually be directed to an American Airlines flight with an American Airlines flight number and the reservation will be handled on the American Airlines PSS system. That'll be true even if you book at USAirways.com. And American insists there'll be no equipment changes or route switches in the immediate future. If it's flying as US Airways on a US Airways aircraft now, it'll continue to do so post-October 16. The only difference is that it will be an American Airlines flight and flight number.
Fliers most at risk are those few who have already booked a US Airways flight after October 16. If American's plans pan out, you'll soon receive an email from the carrier explaining that your flight be operated by American Airlines with an American Airlines flight number. You'll also get a new confirmation number (passenger name record), one that reflects its existence on the American Airlines computer system. American claims that everything else, down to your seat assignment and upgrade status, will be otherwise unchanged.
How to protect yourself
We could spend hours talking about what could go wrong, but let's focus instead on how to protect yourself.
If you need to book a flight between now and October 16, do it at AA.com. Even if it's technically a US Airways flight, booking at AA.com will guarantee the reservation is on American's computer system. Same advice if you want to book a flight on October 17 or beyond that is currently listed as a US Airways flight.
If you're already holding a US Airways ticket for travel beyond October 16? Vigilance is the watchword. Make sure US Airways has your current contact information, especially a valid email address. If you don't get the promised transition email in the next few weeks, contact the airline.
Should you travel that first weekend (October 16-18) of the combined American-US Airways system? Not if you have other options. Book another airline or delay your plans. Besides, American has pro-actively cancelled some scheduled flights that weekend to lighten the load on the transition team. My guess is that there will be more, so why risk booking a potentially cancelled flight?
A carrier's last call
Most fliers won't be too sad to see US Airways fly off into the sunset. Its history is rife with labor disputes, fatal accidents, management missteps and dreary service. It's not for nothing that a group of the airline's most frequent fliers once proudly called themselves "cockroaches" and organized to fight back against several generations of US Airways management.
But if you're an aviation history buff, note that the last call for US Airways should be Flight 434, scheduled to depart San Francisco at 10 p.m. local time on October 16 and arrive in Philadelphia shortly after 6 a.m. local time on October 17. Although there will still be planes in US Airways' livery after October 17, it'll all be one, big dysfunctional family called American Airlines.
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