Friday, August 22, 2008

US Air Trying to do Things Right for a Change

Last year, US Airways was the worst among major airlines in on-time performance. So far this year, it's No. 1.

The turnaround has been dramatic, especially considering that much of the airline's service is in the Northeast where air-traffic congestion has been particularly brutal. But even at the nation's worst airports, US Airways Group Inc. has run more or less on time. At New York's La Guardia Airport, for example, nearly 79 percent of all US Airways flights arrived on time in May, compared with an abysmal 57 percent for AMR Corp.'s American Airlines and 58 percent for UAL Corp.'s United Airlines, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

How can one airline with big congested hubs run on time while other major carriers stumble? US Airways rallied its work force to focus on one goal — getting planes pushed back from the gate on time — and began offering financial incentives to workers for better service.

The airline is spending about $50 million to fix its operation, upgrading equipment and software, fixing computer problems that resulted from its merger with America West Airlines, hiring new management and airport workers, reworking how planes and crews are scheduled and building a crucial new baggage-screening area in Philadelphia.

Some simple things have helped, like installing new electronic displays beside gates so airport ground workers have better information about an airplane's destination and departure time. US Airways also changed how baggage handlers move connecting luggage, with runners taking suitcases directly to connecting flights instead of dumping them in a central sorting area and hoping they get out to the proper aircraft.

The airline made a big push to fill all open mechanics positions at its two biggest hubs, Philadelphia and Phoenix, adding more than 100 workers before the summer travel rush began. As a result, broken things on airplanes — such as light bulbs and seats — that were customer annoyances have been more aggressively repaired. US Airways has a list of those kinds of problems that workers jokingly called NEF — Never Ever Fixed. That list has been reduced by half.

But the biggest change has been the airline's push to inspire workers to deliver better service. "Airlines, or really any organization, need a rallying cry, especially one that has been the worst of the worst for so long," said Robert Isom, the airline's chief operating officer.

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