With balloons, snow cones, children’s fair games and memorabilia from workers, hundreds of employees and their families said goodbye to the East Valley’s first commercial airline Tuesday.
They bid farewell to a carrier that many experts figured wouldn’t be around long, let alone 22 years, in downtown Tempe. On Tuesday, America West becomes US Airways.
Most employees were like Terry Ryan, a 17-year radio technician. He was disappointed about losing the name, but understanding that a merger with US Airways was necessary.
"Lots of fun," he said when asked what he’d remember about the hometown airline. "The bad time through bankruptcy of course wasn’t pleasant, but we are survivors."
CEO Doug Parker called America West’s story amazing. Those who wrote the carrier off when it filed for bankruptcy in 1991 didn’t understand the resiliency and work ethic of its employees who overcame odds time and time again, he said.
"We are going to change the name, but not the America West spirit," Parker said.
Employees signed an America West flag and put dates of hire after their signatures. They snapped up commemorative T-shirts and many stood in line to spin a wheel, where prizes included grab bags of America Westlogoed merchandise. A video of the company’s history was shown inside one of America West’s meeting rooms and next door, "History Hall," had old uniforms, flight schedules and pictures of historic events in the company’s history.
One employee wore a shirt that read "We’re in the majors now."
America West co-founder Ed Beauvais said the merger with US Airways is inline with the vision when the company began in 1983.
"When we were slugging it out in the 1980s the constant criticism that many of you heard about the company is ‘You’re growing too fast, you’re just growing too fast,’ " he said. "We had to reach that critical mass so that we could sustain ourselves in the highly competitive deregulated environment. You have to look at that route map that now represents the combination of US Air and America West, and, if that isn’t critical mass, I don’t know what is."
The combined airline will be the nation’s fifth largest. The new US Airways will employ more than 30,000 and fly to 2,000 destinations.
Beauvais joked there was no truth to the rumor that Parker agreed to sell him the naming rights of America West for $1. He called his time at the company the "greatest in his life." He left America West in 1992 after the carrier filed for Chapter 11, thanks in part to bad decisions to fly Boeing 747s to Hawaii and Nagoya, Japan.
"I am so proud of everybody, even the recent decision announced to fly to Hawaii," Beauvais told employees, poking some fun at himself. He said the Hawaiian expression, aloha, summed up his feelings about America West now and in the future.
"That means a lot of things," Beauvais said, choking up. "It means hello, it means goodbye and it means I love you."
Ryan took the end in stride. Before coming to America West he worked for 16 years at Bonanza Airlines, Air West, Hughes Air West and Republic Airlines, which became Northwest Airlines.
"I’ve been through this kind of thing before," he said. "It was all merger, buyout deals." He plans to remember America West with all the pictures he was snapping.