US AIRWAYS TANKS ACROSS THE POND
By Joe Brancatelli
August 23, 2007 -- I've been on the road long enough to know that you must always look gift horses from the airlines in the mouth. So when the notoriously shifty bosses at US Airways started offering 20 percent off the price of its international business-class flights, I started poking around.
Even your ever-skeptical columnist was shocked at what I found: a near-collapse of the day-to-day operations of US Airways' Philadelphia-based transatlantic service. Even by this summer's reduced standards, the operation that US Airways runs between Philadelphia and Europe is shocking.
How about 17 percent on-time departures from Philadelphia to Glasgow between June 15 and August 15? Or 24 percent on-time between Philadelphia and London/Gatwick during the same two-month period. Try two in three flights late to Madrid. In fact, all of US Airways flights to Europe except for one are below the atrocious industry on-time average of just 68 percent.
It would be bad enough if it were just US Airways' on-time performance that was in tatters. But the physical condition of the transatlantic cabins is disastrous.
As anyone who's had the misfortune to fly with US Airways to or from Europe can attest, little works in-flight. There are broken tray tables, busted seats and balky in-flight entertainment systems. The physical shabbiness is apparent in both coach and business-class cabins. Also obvious: Threadbare galleys that afflict both the flight attendants and the passengers.
Speaking of flight attendants, little of what has gone wrong at US Airways this summer is their fault. In fact, there are fewer of them than ever on the US Airways flights to and from Europe. Internal statistics passed to me by a disgusted US Airways employee show that dozens of flights in July and August were short-staffed with a reduced crew of flight attendants. Dozens more were flown without even one flight attendant who spoke the language of the flight's European country of origination or destination. Still more were hastily staffed with trainees or reserves when the original crews timed out after long ground delays.
Then there are the mechanical issues that caused the long delays, diversions and cancellations. In the June 15 to August 15 period, the Brussels to Philadelphia flight was cancelled six times. In mid-July, the Philadelphia to Athens flight was diverted twice in a week. And as you can see by the "long delay" category on the chart, some of the delays created by the mechanicals were appalling: six hours and five minutes to Shannon; eight hours and 33 minutes to Glasgow; nine hours and 29 minutes from Barcelona.
One cursed flight from Munich to Philadelphia this summer was cancelled and delayed for a total of 53 hours because US Airways management chose to fly in a part from the United States. Unfortunately, management made the further mistake of putting the part on a US Airways flight to Munich and that flight ran into its own problems with delays and cancellations.
Then there was what a local Philadelphia radio station called the "passenger revolt" on Flight 706 to Munich early in August. A series of mechanical delays and aborted takeoffs--not to mention the fact that the original crew needed to be replaced after they ran out of duty time--delayed the 8:20 p.m. departure by almost 11 hours. About 50 passengers couldn't bear the uncertainty and the middle-of-the-night wait at Philadelphia airport and simply went home.
"I have been flying for 30 years and have never seen anything like this," one rebel, Larry Hawthorne, told KYW Radio. "I have never seen a bunch of passengers rebel like this. It was a sight to behold."
What's caused this US Airways meltdown? The same-old, same-old: management incompetence.
The patchwork fleet of Airbus A330s, Boeing 757s and Boeing 767s that US Airways threw together to expand its European networks during the last few years is aging. Management runs the fleet so hard and so long that mechanics have no time on the ground to fix the non-essential flaws like broken seats, video systems and tray tables. And when it comes to the essential mechanical repairs, US Airways management has chosen to warehouse many critical parts at its Phoenix hub. When something goes wrong in Philadelphia, passengers often have to wait for parts to arrive from the desert. And as that woebegone Munich flight showed, US Airways management makes Europe-originating passengers wait while parts are ferried across the Atlantic.
Why not just fly fewer international flights more reliably? Even if they wanted to--and they don't seem to want to--US Airways managers insist that they cannot afford to slow down. A multi-sided gate dispute at Philadelphia forces them to use their departure gates or lose them, they claim.
But let's be honest. Does the why even matter any more?
In the two years since the US Airways-America West merger, US Airways management has proven in a hundred--nay, a thousand--ways that it does not give a damn about its customers, its product, its employees or its reputation. You don't really think they care about the state of its European operation, do you?
After all, the bosses sit in corporate headquarters in Tempe, Arizona. They're not going to Europe. For that matter, they don't go to Philadelphia all that much, either.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
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This column is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.