The Brancatelli File



December 7, 2000 -- We've reached an intriguing moment in American air-transportation history. A few of our major carriers are flying high at the same time several others are near operational collapse. Several more face immediate and severe labor problems.

So the question is obvious: Who are you flying right now? Are you shopping for a new carrier? Reassessing your loyalty to your current favorites? Convinced things are so bad you should never leave your desk again? Pledging fealty forever to the airline that just made you top-level elite?

Here's how I currently rate the nine largest domestic carriers. But please understand: I'm not making a financial assessment or a rarefied "quality" judgment. There is no complicated numerical system to decipher, no stars awarded, no winner per se. I'm too jaded for all that. My rating system is frequent-flying simplicity: In my mind, an airline is either "okay to fly" or a carrier I "avoid" if I can.

One final thought: I accept and respect any and all judgments you make for your own flying. You may be appalled by a carrier I find "OK to fly" and may be receiving great service from an airline I've chosen to avoid. Great minds like ours may differ and I urge you to fly the carriers that treat you best. Of course, I'd love to hear your opinion. So read what I'm thinking and please let me know how you call it.

AMERICA WEST At any other time, America West's persistent operational problems would be scandalous, nationwide news. But with several larger carriers in crisis, America West's steady deterioration has gone largely unnoticed. For the first nine months of the year, America West's cumulative passenger-complaint rate was the worst in the nation and 2.5 times the industry average. It has the highest rate of mishandled bags. And for the 12-month period ended in September, one out of three America West flights arrived late. And things are getting worse, not better. In October, the airline's on-time performance dropped to 63.3 percent and it canceled nearly 5 percent of its scheduled flights. My rating: Avoid

AMERICAN Day-by-day, across the system, most travelers I know believe that American Airlines is the nation's most reliable full-service major carrier. Given the competition, that's not exactly a glowing endorsement, but you have to like the moves American has made this year: more legroom at every coach seat, a new plan to enlarge overhead carry-on bins and increased seat pitch in its international business-class cabins. American's most immediate problems are its congested hubs at Chicago/O'Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth. The airline says it is segregating those metaphorical sore thumbs to minimize their systemwide deleterious effects, but tomorrow's promise doesn't solve today's delays. Another situation to watch: Negotiations with flight attendants broke down this week and American's labor-relations history isn't encouraging. My rating: OK to fly

CONTINENTAL Continental's rapid transformation from "airline you hate to fly" to an admired carrier of choice has been miraculous. Continental has renewed its fleet, expanded the size of its overhead bins and been an outspoken opponent of those miserable carry-on templates. It has rapidly expanded overseas and I admire its BusinessFirst international service. But arrogance has crept in and Continental has become a pricing hawk, raising business fares and imposing surcharges at a detestably rapid pace. Simply put, no airline is as good as Continental thinks it has become. And travelers who use Continental's delay-plagued Newark hub aren't as thrilled with the airline as the carrier's other passengers. My rating: OK to fly

DELTA Any progress Delta made to improve service in recent months has been destroyed by its current squabble with pilots. They have been refusing voluntarily overtime assignments in recent weeks, a tactic United pilots used so successfully during the summer. That led to almost 400 cancellations last weekend and Delta's announcement Tuesday evening that it would abruptly cut 125 daily flights from its schedule. But since Delta can't require pilots to accept voluntary overtime and since the airline relies on pilot overtime to staff as much as 5 percent of its daily schedule, chaos may be inevitable. Some savvy travelers using Delta's Atlanta hub are already switching to AirTran. My rating: Avoid while you monitor developments

NORTHWEST Northwest had been slowly and grudgingly improving its service after its 1997-98 meltdown and its embarrassing performance in a Detroit snowstorm in January, 1999. Northwest was even privately boasting that it would win the mythic "on-time" crown for the year 2000. But negotiations with its mechanics, who have been working without a contract for five years, have turned nasty. Cancellations and delays are rising precipitously and even the National Mediation Board has thrown up its hands. Even when the labor problems disappear, however, Northwest is left with the nation's oldest fleet. My rating: Avoid

SOUTHWEST Donít let Southwest's dirt-cheap fares blind you to the fact that this airline runs like clockwork. Comparatively speaking, its on-time performance is solid, it almost never cancels or combines flights and it doesn't lose bags. Its complaint rate, the lowest in the nation, is one-sixth the industry average. It is expanding like crazy and everywhere it goes, it drives down prices. So what's not to like? It doesn't assign seats--no small annoyance for business travelers desperate to avoid the middle seat--and its on-time rating is deteriorating as it expands to congested East Coast markets. Rating: OK to fly

TWA From an operational standpoint, TWA is running admirably well. It has averaged 80 percent on-time arrivals over the last 12 months and cancels fewer than one percent of its daily schedule, arguably the best performance in the nation. The airline's fleet is now among the country's youngest. It has beefed up transcontinental service, increased flights at Los Angeles and begun building Caribbean service at San Juan. It also has the industry's most liberal frequent-flyer and full-fare upgrade policies. But TWA is chronically unprofitable, its once-vaunted European network has withered and its survival is always at issue. My rating: OK to fly

UNITED The nation's largest airline is a national disgrace. Its unprecedented collapse this summer was a direct result of management playing a losing game of chicken with its pilots. Yet United is now pursuing the same disastrous strategy with mechanics. The result? Unscheduled cancellations are skyrocketing again. And even though it padded its schedule throughout the summer--when fewer than half of its flights ran on time--the airline's on-time arrival performance in November was once again below 70 percent. United's reward for loyal customers? No protection of their elite frequent-flyer status and last month's dumbfounding 10 percent price hike. But passengers are resisting: United's domestic traffic has plummeted for five consecutive months. My rating: Avoid

US AIRWAYS After several years of employee unrest, US Airways management settled outstanding labor issues earlier this year and everyone expected a quick rebound. Surprisingly, however, US Airways remains in operational limbo. Its on-time performance is near the bottom of the very deep national barrel. During September, for example, 4.3 percent of its flights arrived late 70 percent of the time or more. Its mishandled baggage rate rose, too. Service seems better to and from Pittsburgh than the carrier's other hubs. The recent problems at New York/LaGuardia, where US Airways is huge, haven't helped, either. My rating: Incomplete

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