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US Airways Improving, But Still Leads In Gripes

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Without question, US Airways has plenty of reasons to brag this year.

Through September, Charlotte’s dominant carrier just missed being the best major carrier for on-time arrivals, and it continues to climb the list for fewest mishandled bags. Despite bad weather Sunday, US Airways emerged from Thanksgiving largely unscathed and is running a much smoother operation than last year, when it was the worst airline for on-time flights.

With the winter holidays approaching, however, US Airways still gets the most gripes per passenger among major carriers, as improvements haven’t translated into more favorable opinions.

The gap isn’t lost on the airline’s leaders, whose plans for 2009 include new steps to address the most persistent area of complaints: customer service and reservations, ticketing and boarding.

“We were properly prioritized in fixing our reliability first” this year, said Kerry Hester, US Airways’ vice president of reservations and customer service planning. “What we’re focusing on in 2009 is being easier to do business with.”

US Airways already can tout a big drop in total complaints filed this year with the U.S. Department of Transportation – down more than 40 percent, surpassing the 12 percent decline for all airlines. In addition, US Airways doesn’t trail other carriers by as much as last year – when it had most complaints of all airlines – and even climbed out of last place at mid-year, edging United.

“We’re closing the gap,” Hester said.

By the end of September, though, US Airways was back at the bottom. While flight problems are still the most-cited issue, the airline has cut those complaints – as well as ones about baggage – in half. But gripes about customer service and reservations, ticketing and boarding haven’t dipped nearly as much and now make up a larger percentage of complaints – a trend that mirrors the industry.

As Hester explained, customers generally are less upset about flight delays than how US Airways helps them recover from disruptions. The airline plans to boost its information systems, she said, including new notification tools and a program in which customers can tell US Airways through its Web site what information they want, when they want it and how – by e-mail or phone.

US Airways also is aiming to reduce response time to delays and cancellations and add more automation to the recovery process, which will give customers more consistency, Hester said. “We’re re-evaluating every customer touch point,” she said.

Seth Kaplan, managing partner of the trade magazine Airline Weekly, said other issues factor into complaints:

The merger of US Airways and America West Airlines, which began in 2005 and still isn’t completed. Hester said ongoing labor disputes aren’t affecting service, but Kaplan said failing to integrate pilots and other workers has hurt consistency and morale. “It’s not as cohesive an airline as others,” he said.

Competition with Southwest Airlines, which has the fewest consumer complaints. US Airways battles Southwest more than other major carriers for business, and may suffer by comparison when something goes wrong with a passenger.

Too many new fees and changes to programs and policies. Frequent fliers were especially upset by US Airways dropping minimum mileage awards and bonus miles this year – two moves the airline reversed last month. “With that,” Kaplan said, “they might have pushed too far.”

Doug Parker, the chairman and chief executive of US Airways, also has blamed part of the carrier’s poor showing in complaints this year on its aggressive adoption of “a la carte pricing” – charging fees for services once covered by fares, such as checking bags, reserving certain seats and non-alcoholic drinks on planes.

Hester said last week that consumer complaints related to new fees have been “modest” and usually trail off soon after a new fee begins. Regardless, she said, US Airways has a team that meets monthly to review each complaint to the Department of Transportation.

“We read every one of them,” she said.

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