PHILADELPHIA — It’s the end of the line for US Airways.
The airline that started as a tiny airmail service 76 years ago is retiring as part of a 2013 merger with American Airlines. The final US Airways flight is scheduled to take off from Philadelphia on Friday.
It’s a small part of a huge trend that’s affecting how more than 660 million domestic air travelers fly every year.
Fourteen years ago, the United States had 10 major domestic airlines. Now, the competing major carriers have merged into four: American, Delta, Southwest and United.
Together, they control about 87% of the domestic market, MIT’s International Center for Air Transportation said.
Is that a good thing for travelers looking for lower airfares?
“I don’t think it’s bad at all,” said Brett Snyder of airline industry blog The Cranky Flier. “Fares have come down lately. You still see these guys fighting with each other. But is there as much competition as there was? No, of course not, because there are fewer carriers.”
Snyder, who spent more than a decade working for United, USAir and America West, called it “rational competition” among “smarter airlines” that know how to make a profit. “I guess from the customers’ standpoint, you could argue that it would be better to have 20 tiny airlines losing money and taking you places cheap. But that’s not sustainable.”
Folks who think airfares are too high may be interested to know that domestic air travel is 17% cheaper in inflation-adjusted dollars than it was more than 20 years ago, according to federal statistics. But we also have to pay extra on some carriers to check bags and get seat assignments, which used to be included in the price of a ticket.
Also notable is that the Justice Department is investigating “possible unlawful coordination” of seat availability by airlines, allegedly to prop up ticket prices.
What about services?
Travelers give mixed signals about airline service.
Sometimes, the feedback is good: A J.D. Power and Associates passenger survey of airlines in North America released in May showed a record high satisfaction ranking for in-flight services; boarding, deplaning and baggage; flight crew; aircraft; check-in; and reservations.
But sometimes, the feedback is not so good: The number of passenger complaints to the Department of Transportation is up.
It really is a different world now, compared with the days before the federal government deregulated the airline industry in 1978.
Back then, authorities could set fares and choose routes. That made it hard for airlines to fill all the seats on every flight.
“In the old days, it seemed like there was always a seat next to you that was empty, and people took that for granted,” said transportation expert Clifford Winston of the Brookings Institution Washington think tank. “Today, you laugh and say, ‘wait a minute, what kind of rat ship were they running then?’ ”
Are we better off now? “In the long run, yes,” Winston said.
‘A golden time’
To get a taste for air travel before deregulation, meet Capt. William Compton.
In 1968, Compton began a decadeslong career flying for the iconic Trans World Airlines, aka TWA.
The passenger experience on TWA and other major airlines “was really, really good,” he recalled. “Service was fantastic. People got on the airplane with a coat and tie. The seats were wider and longer. The food was better. It was a golden time.”
A lot of airlines in the old days “weren’t making any money, but they were producing a great product,” Compton, now retired, said last week from his Florida home.
TWA was an airline that pretty much showed America how to travel by airplane. It was the innovator. In 1930, it launched one of the first scheduled coast-to-coast passenger airline flights. It was among the first airlines to fly four-engine planes with pressurized cabins that could soar high above bad weather. It basically invented in-flight dining, figuring out the best way to offer every passenger a fancy meal, served with cloth napkins, tablecloths, real silverware and china.
Some of us domestic air travelers have seen these things only on YouTube. For us, a three-course meal on a domestic flight amounts to a packet of King’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, a Biscoff cookie and a tomato juice in a plastic cup.
In the ’60s and ’70s, “people wanted excellent service, so they had to pay more,” Compton said. “Now, people don’t want to pay more, they want to pay less, which makes sense.” That prompts airlines to fill every seat to keep prices low.
TWA didn’t fare well after deregulation. Wall Street billionaire Carl Icahn bought it, took it private and sold off valuable international routes. After multiple bankruptcies, TWA was purchased by American Airlines in 2001. By that time, Compton was CEO. He and Capt. Don Jacobs piloted TWA’s final flight, a short hop in a 155-seat MD-80 from Kansas City to St. Louis.
“I remember we did a low pass across the runway, which was exciting,” said Compton, now 68. “We actually made a nice touchdown landing and taxied to the gate, to be met by hundreds of employees.
“It was sad in some ways, but it was a lot of fun.”
US Airways’ legacy
On Friday, US Airways’ final flight will soar into the sunset, ending its tenure with nearly 6,700 daily flights, more than 100,000 employees and about 8% of U.S. domestic passengers.
It also leaves in its wake a few names that might sound familiar. Until 1997, US Airways was called USAir. In the 1970s, it was Allegheny. But it all started in Pittsburgh as All-American Aviation, which flew single-engine planes delivering airmail in 1939.
“Looking back to when it was Allegheny, US Airways was the local service airline that could,” Snyder said. “Its legacy was being able to break out of a pack of local service airlines to pull itself up by its bootstraps and build itself into something much larger.”
Snyder, who cut his teeth in the business as an intern at USAir, admits a soft spot for US Airways. Nonetheless, he said, the airline’s record during the 1980s was “somewhat checkered at best” after it acquired Pacific Southwest and Piedmont airlines.
In 2005, US Airways merged with America West, keeping the US Airways name. “Here’s the reality: US Airways effectively died in 2005,” Snyder said. “There’s no question about it; America West took over. Despite the US Airways name sticking around, it just became a bigger America West.”
Then, eight years later, US Airways’ top management essentially took control of American Airlines during their merger.
What’s on the radar?
As for the future, American says it plans to keep US Airways’ big hub in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Charlotte Observer reports.
Are more megamergers coming? Will four be cut to three? Unlikely, says Winston. “Mergers are very risky propositions. They don’t necessarily work well.” Corporate cultures can clash. Merging complicated computer reservation and scheduling networks can be bumpy, at best. Just ask United Airlines, which was still struggling to smooth its operations five years after its megamerger with Continental Airlines, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Appropriately, US Airways’ last run will be Flight 1939, the year it all began. The flight will depart Friday from Philadelphia, heading to Charlotte and then Phoenix and San Francisco. From there, it will take off again and fly east, ending its celebratory journey on Saturday back in Philly, in the state where its history began.
There’s one more thing US Airways might be remembered for: a heroic emergency landing by Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles in January 2009.
After a bird strike during takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, they landed their crippled plane safely in the Hudson River, saving all 155 people aboard. That bit of US Airways history will be remembered as one of the most upbeat and heartwarming stories of 2009.
Now, that aircraft lives inside the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte. Letters stretching across its fuselage read: US Airways.
Not a bad legacy to leave behind. Not bad at all.