East Coast storm problematic for US Airways travelers - East Valley Tribune: News

East Coast storm problematic for US Airways travelers

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Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2007 5:50 am | Updated: 7:00 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Erin Gray of Tempe flew from Boston to Phoenix on Sunday. Her skis didn’t. Stephanie Thrasher’s problem was the opposite. Her bags went to Chicago, but she got bumped off the overbooked plane.

Both women showed up Monday at the US Airways baggage claim center at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport hoping to be reunited with their lost luggage.

A huge storm pelted the East Coast with snow and ice Friday causing the cancellation of thousands of flights during the weekend, leaving hundreds of thousands of passengers grounded. It was still having an impact Monday.

Tempe-based US Airways, one of the hardest hit carriers because of its big hubs in Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., canceled 2,500 flights affecting as many as 100,000 passengers, spokeswoman Valerie Wunder said.

But by the end of day Monday all the passengers had been accommodated, Wunder said. They either were transported eventually to their destination or re-booked for travel at a later date, she said.

But hundreds of those passengers, like Gray and Thrasher, were still separated from their bags. At least that many pieces of luggage were at Sky Harbor on Monday waiting to be picked up or shipped out.

“Our No. 1 priority was getting the passengers to where they needed to go, and our No. 2 priority is the bags,” Wunder said.

Even cities that didn’t have bad weather over the weekend were impacted, Wunder said, because so much business flows to or through the two big East Coast hubs.

“It’s a funneling issue,” she said.

The bad weather was just the lat- est in a long saga of woes for the hometown airline, some of the angst related to the integration of systems and procedures from the 2005 merger of US Airways and America West Airlines.

A merged Web site installed in May caused the online booking system to grind nearly to a halt, drop some reservations, and cause havoc with frequent flyer records.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s baggage handling system, which had been stumbling for years under the old US Airways management, proved to be a tough — and expensive — turnaround.

The company invested in new equipment and staff, and the system finally started showing some improvement, when a mid-February storm stomped Philadelphia and other mid-Atlantic cities, causing massive delays and cancellations and severely strained the system.

Then just weeks later, a new reservation system caused the meltdown of the self-service check-in kiosks on the East Coast, causing long lines and missed flights.

The company bandaged the ailing system procedurally with extra staff while techies tried to fix the computer records. The system is operating at 75 percent to 80 percent efficiency in Philadelphia and Charlotte, where most of the problems surfaced, Wunder said.

And no new records are being botched, said Joe Beery, US Airways chief information officer.

But one big problem still exists. Mac users can’t make reservations or check in. Beery said that problem is expected to be fixed in June.

The long lines happened again last weekend. But the computer did not cause that, Wunder said.

Passengers were forced to full-service counters if they were re-booking due to the vast weather-related cancellations, she said.

Despite passenger frustration caused by the weekend cancellations and misdirected luggage, US Airways is not likely to suffer long-term effects, said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, a passenger advocacy group.

JetBlue, which left passengers sitting on runways for 10 or more hours during the mid-February storm, set the standard for poor handling of weather-related problems, he said.

“JetBlue sucked up all the oxygen out of cancelled flights,” Stempler said.

During the recent storm, JetBlue cancelled all East Coast flights before even a drop of precipitation fell.

US Airways flew until the weather actually got hazardous, said Bob Mann, airline industry analyst, which might have been a better idea.

“There just was no poster child like JetBlue this time,” Mann said. “I don’t see anything like the outrage (aimed at JetBlue). I’m not sure US Airways handled this any better or worse than anybody else.“ Mann doesn’t think the past weekend will cause US Airways to lose future passengers. Even Thrasher, who was unhappy about missing an important business meeting in Chicago and then having to go to the airport to pick up her luggage, said she would probably keep flying US Airways because her company booked her travel.

And Gray said she’s had lost luggage before and takes it in stride.

Stempler said despite all of US Airways’ recent woes, few will likely avoid the carrier because of them.

“People who have had a bad experience may remember those things, but people still vote with their wallets for low fares,” he said.

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