US Airways wants America West to move to the middle seat.
The company this week embarked on a new branding effort by referring to itself only as US Airways.
The goal is to avoid any confusion that might exist following the merger of US Airways and America West Airlines in October. It’s time, the company says, to say goodbye to America West.
"It’s really hard because depending on where you buy your ticket, you’re being told that flight is America West, you’re being told it’s US Airways," said Kevin Jackson, director of consumer marketing. "From a product identity, we want to say ‘This is US Airways.’ We need to begin sunsetting that America West name."
While the company will still operate separate reservation systems until the end of the year, customers will notice changes now.
The carrier instructed its reservation agents this week to begin answering the phones with the US Airways name, even if the customer calls using an America West number. Flights will now be announced as US Airways, but passengers will be informed they’re operated by America West, a legal requirement because the company has separate reservation systems and operating certificates.
Those headed to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport will notice America West signs replaced by US Airways over the next several months. Ticket counter signs will also change.
When passengers board, they will thumb through a US Airways in-flight magazine and be given US Airways onboard entertainment. Ticket jackets will begin changing.
"Even down to the napkins that you see when you’re served your beverage, that will begin being replaced with US Airways," Jackson said.
The company, run by America West management, chose the US Airways name because it’s better known on the East Coast and in Europe. But some locals, still pining for the America West name, have had trouble making the switch and still use the old name, if subconsciously.
America West had just 3 percent of the domestic market, Jackson said. Its presence at Sky Harbor and Las Vegas was large and it was wellknown in Southern California, but the airline was virtually unheard of on the East Coast.
US Airways hubs in Charlotte, N.C. and Philadelphia are larger than Sky Harbor, and its hub in Pittsburgh is larger than Las Vegas.
As a combined carrier, US Airways’ share of the domestic market exceeds 10 percent, Jackson said. The two airlines combined to create the 5th largest carrier in the United States, one spot above Southwest Airlines.
US Airways has a public relations challenge in the eastern United States, where the old US Airways name carries baggage because of poor service during two bankruptcies. During Christmas week 2004, the airline suffered a meltdown thanks to staffing shortages in Philadelphia and elsewhere that disrupted holiday trips for 560,000 passengers, the federal government found.
But the brand has made some resurgence in the East, said David Stempler, president Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group.
"Lately it’s been fairly neutral and not problematic," he said. "People are just waiting to see what happens."
The latest numbers available show for the second consecutive month, the new US Airways finished among the top three airlines in on-time arrivals as measured by the Department of Transportation.
For the month of November, the carrier posted 83.6 percent on-time arrival performance, placing it second among major airlines.
During the holiday rush from Dec. 20 to Jan. 3, the company’s planes were ontime 75.9 percent of the time, a 17-point improvement over 2004. US Airways did not far so well when it comes to baggage and customer complaints, ranking 10th among major carriers in each category.
Both carriers have had name challenges before, Stempler said
"When America West first started, there was brand confusion with American," he said. "America West finally had to establish itself in the public’s mind as an entity separate than American and that took a long process for that to instill itself."
US Airways was once US Air. It was changed by management because it was thought US Airways was a more international name like British Airways, Stempler said.
Sometimes re-branding can backfire, he said. When Delta Airlines took over Pan Am’s European routes when the company was shutting down, Delta immediately changed its name despite Pan Am’s global familiarity.
"People in Europe didn’t know Delta Airlines," Stempler said. "It took them a while to get their footing. There’s lots of pitfalls and potholes you can run into as you do that thing. I’m sure US Airways thought it through but there’s got to be confusion at these air terminals."
So far, US Airways has done a good job of avoiding confusion between the two airlines, said Perry Flint, managing editor of Air Transport World magazine, an aviation trade publication:
"You go to the Web site, each one takes you to the other. It’s very clear," he said. "It’s not as if the merger has sort of happened in the dark. It’s been on the front pages . . . in all the places the customer is most likely to be effected. You would really have to be living . . . in a bomb shelter not to know this is going on."
The bigger problem, he says, will be making sure things run smoothly at the airport.
"The devil in the details," Flint said. "Is there clear signage telling you where to go, what terminal to go to? Do you wind up walking back and forth saying ‘It used to be here. Where are they?’ Get the uniforms right, get the signage right. That’s where people notice it most."
To those in the east, US Airways should sell America West’s management, said Tim Riester of Riester-Robb, a Valley-based advertising and public relations firm.
Led by CEO Doug Parker, America West was able to turn itself around from years of shoddy service, he said. The perception the last five years is one of a successful airline, Riester said.
"I would approach the large businesses that have a number of people traveling in these hubs that they’ve now picked up all around the eastern United States and I’d pitch them the story of their track record for turning around this airline out west," he said.
For the locals who might be concerned about the change, Riester would promote the expanded East Coast network while at the same time stressing business as usual.
For America West fans, the company is planning billboard and newspaper ads that will say: "Your hometown airline now takes you to more hometowns. "
Jackson said the airline has gone from serving 96 cities out of the Valley to more than 200 worldwide.
"When you look at that route map and you see this enormous amount of cities on the East Coast that we could never fly you to but now you can and you pick up the Caribbean and Europe, which wasn’t ours before, to the America West customer, the opportunities . . . are much greater."
The advertising push won’t be fueled with gobs of money because the company would rather sink its cash into operations, Jackson said.
Riester said the effort should be mostly low key.
"Often people in my industry try to get too caught up in entertaining or . . . we work to create an ad that makes people laugh or tries to get their attention or tries to differentiate," he says.
"Often, you need to do that if you don’t have a lot to sell that’s positive. In this case . . . they have distinct advantages they’re offering that are true and believable and simplistic in nature. I would be very straightforward in the way I would present those messages and not try to make it too jazzy or too funny."