Saturday, June 28, 2008

USAir Begins With No

When Allegheny Airlines became US Air, the expensive media campaign that introduced the "new" airline to its customer base used the phrase "US Air Begins With You" (or as we used to say in Philadelphia, "US Air Begins With Youse").

It was a great concept -- customer service. An airline putting you into its marketing strategy.

Well, I lived in South Jersey in those days. Did all my flying out of Philly International (a big hub for US Air) and I can tell you -- along with most of its other customers -- nothing changed. It was still Allegheny Airlines as usual.

Today, the airline industry -- not just US Airways, the more sophisticated name that evolved from US Air -- knows very little about customer focus. In fact, they think they have bigger problems to solve -- like the spiraling cost of fuel.

No doubt the price of fuel is a major problem, but so is the fact that airlines are proving they can not only be poor marketers, but lousy business people. Only Southwest Airlines is consistently profitable in part becayse it has hedged its bet by buying aviation fuel on the futures market and blunting the escalating cost. Southwest is also pretty good at customer service.

Now US Airways has decided to raise fares (that's to be expected when fuel prices soar), charge a small fee for the first bag checked (silly -- just add $15 on to the next fare increase), a higher charge for the next checked bag (silly times two) and they've decided to charge for water, soft drinks, snacks, food and everything else for non-first class or Dividend Preferred travelers.

They're still losing money.

And public confidence.

Just Saturday US Airways announced that it will eliminate curbside check-in at three dozen cities to save paying the vendor and it will retain curbside check-in by using employees only at the largest hubs and select cities. So, if you fly from and to the right cities you not only get the privilege of paying extra to check bags but you can even lug them inside and wait in line there for a customer service representative that hasn't yet been laid off.

Pity the handicapped or overweight or elderly -- guess US Airways wants them to suck it up.

After its merger with America West the unions have still not been integrated into one happy family and that means many unhappy US Airways employees.

Yet there are some outstanding ones -- the people who still treat customers like their are, well -- worth it. I had such a flight a few days ago from Minneapolis to Phoenix. The flight attendants were outstandingly friendly and helpful. When my wife and I passed on the first class meal (we were upgraded), two flight attendants later thanked us because they got to eat them.

A number of months ago I was on a flight that came this close to hitting another plane upon landing at Phoenix/Sky Harbor. That's why the captain pulled this 737 straight up into the air and banked left as the plane shook and all of us -- including the flight attendants -- sat in silence and shock.

When everything is said and done, you want a crew that will fly safely in a turbulent airline industry -- one imploding from bad business decisions and one in neglect from the FAA and federal government.

Thank God the managers were not flying the plane. They might have elected to risk the landing to save on fuel.

Some of the employees on my recent flight were dealing with the crowded overhead compartments that are seeing more luggage as passengers look to save the checked luggage fees. I asked the flight attendants if this was becoming a problem and they all agreed it was. No room in the overhead spaces -- too much demand. In such cases the airline checks them for free. So, why not try to get your bags on and save money if they don't make it.

Sounds like a winner to me.

These fools are charging for aisle seats and window locations on some airlines. More legroom is an upgrade on other airlines.

As one airline employee told me, "management doesn't know what goes on in their own airplanes". That's why they come up with such silly practices.

So, as most of us know who travel -- expect to hear "no" from the time you book your flight until the time you step off the plane. What has the business of no gotten the airlines? Unhappy customers and record losses. Keep in mind most airlines couldn't make money when fuel was cheaper and when the industry was deregulated to simulate a monopoly in some cities. Check their share price.

So, if airlines insist on boneheaded business practices, why try to stop them. They won't listen. Let's just come up with some more stupid airline tricks for laughs. These clueless managers may actually adopt them -- so be forewarned.

• Charge to use the restroom. Of course, first time is free -- it's on them. But the second and third times, you pay. Put the money in the lavatory door and open -- like in some European public bathrooms. Pity the passengers out of change on the flight from Mazatlan to the U.S. especially if they were drinking the water in Mexico.

• Assess an introduction fee to those who want to meet the passenger in front of them when their seat reclines -- especially dentists who can get a good look into their mouths. Great social networking tool.

• Charge extra for a copilot on each plane. Why are we forcing the airlines to spend all that money in the cockpit when they can cut the crew by 50% and their upfront expenses by almost that much. You want a copilot, you pay more. If not, it's the captain and the computer. Easy to do on an AirBus.

• Charge a fee for WiFi in the sky. Wait! They're already going to do this on American.

• Charge a hefty fee to be kept at least six rows from a baby spitting up, a kid or two screaming or any attention deficit person including a 20 year old with tattoos.

• The airline gets a finders fee for every overweight, out of shape business traveler who picks up another overweight out of shape business traveler. And, if you get a thin one, double the charge. Always remember, in the airline industry -- less is more.

Now, I am at peace.

I feel like an airline executive.

All cockamamie ideas to raise money and help our poor brethren at the airlines out in this dire emergency will be appreciated -- and maybe even adopted.

God forbid they just -- say, raise the price to cover their costs.

I'm just sayin'.

They might learn a lesson from a United pilot who was allegedly involved in an incident with other colleagues at Salt Lake City. The pilot went on the PA system and told the passengers he was too upset to safely fly them to Denver. Although the passengers were disappointed because some would presumably miss connections, news accounts said that they seemed to appreciate that the captain was honest with them.

And so, the lesson.

The business of yes begins with honesty.

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