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 Barnett on Business Travel

chris AMERICA WEST
REINVENTS ITSELF


BY CHRIS BARNETT

February 12, 2004 -- America West Airlines may be the Rocky of carriers, surviving a 20-year hail of punishing blows that have buried much brawnier competitors. But it has always bounced back and stayed in the fray. Now, despite some visible scars and bruises, America West is fighting on, scoring points with a new flight plan that includes long-haul nonstops at cheap prices for plan-ahead vacationers and affordable walk-up fares for business travelers who have to book last-minute trips.

It's an inspiring story. Created in Phoenix in 1981 as a full-fare, full-service airline and airborne two years later, America West had a grand vision. All employees were owner-shareholders who rotated around the carrier doing more than one job. The same staffer hefted luggage, took phone reservations and worked the ticket counters. Top brass, including the chief executive, worked alongside the rank and file doing mundane chores. America West was a something of an airline Utopia where everyone, including passengers, were prized and pampered. Free drinks were passed out in economy class in those early days.

But the party ended in mid-1991, two years after the airline posted a record $20 million annual profit. Cash-squeezed America West filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to stave off its creditors. During most of the 1990s, there was a revolving door in the executive offices. Labor and management were often at each other's throats. The airline had a deplorable on-time record for arrivals and departures. In 1998, four years after a re-organized America West emerged from bankruptcy, the Federal Aviation Administration slammed it with $2.5 million in fines and penalties for a long list of aircraft safety violations. The airline paid up and vowed not to cut corners on maintenance again.

In March, 2002, however, America West reinvented itself as a discount airline. Chief executive Doug Parker slashed fares 40-to-70 percent below the prices charged by the Big Six and America West started courting business travelers by jettisoning the Saturday-night stay requirement. America West even offers free standby for the next same-day flight, something Southwest Airlines, its biggest competitor in Phoenix, doesn't permit. How far has America West lowered fares? Orbitz.com recently quoted $342 roundtrip with a one-day advance purchase for America West's relatively new Los Angeles-to-Boston nonstop. The majors charge about $2,400 roundtrip for that kind of buy-and-fly ticket. America West has also posted a $499 first-class, walk-up fare on its transcontinental nonstops.

Even with its bare-bones fares and new policies like letting passengers keep the dollar value of unused nonrefundable tickets, America West has turned a profit for three consecutive quarters. Since 9/11, no Big Six carrier has managed even two profitable quarters in succession.

So are we talking "extreme makeover" here? To find out, I recently flew three America West roundtrips. In my opinion, the door-to-door flight experience remains inconsistent.

For instance, the airline is still flying some of its original 737-200s and they are tired and don't look clean. Fine, this is a discount airline giving me a great price, so I guess can live with it. But on four segments, the paint around the toilets was chipped and rusted and the loo looked about as inviting as a gas-station bathroom. On a New Orleans-to-Phoenix flight, the lavatory was out-of-order before takeoff.

On the other hand, America West's newer, wider Airbus A319s are a lot fresher and brighter from stem to stern.

The airline has not added any legroom to economy class, but its fleet of A319s, 737s and 757s offers 32 inches of seat pitch. That's roomier than most Big Six coach configurations. I landed an aisle seat in the exit row on two of the six legs simply by asking at the gate before takeoff. Gate agents were mostly gracious.

Don't expect a meal, or even a snack, other than peanuts, on any America West route, even the new transcon nonstops, unless your particular flight is selling sandwiches and salads. Coffee is passable. The airline says it is "exploring" in-seat TV entertainment systems similar to what JetBlue, Frontier and Delta's Song are offering, but I wouldn't bet a dime that they'll be installed.

You can upgrade to America West's first-class cabin in two ways: with FlightFund miles or, if they're unspoken for right before takeoff, with an extra $50 to $200 depending on the length of the flight. Still, an extra $200 to fly first class coast-to-coast is worth it. It's a smart strategy more airlines should adopt.

With a few noticeable exceptions, America West's flight attendants were not really smiling or engaging on my six flights. They mostly went through the routine motions of doing their job without much sparkle, eye contact or congeniality. In their defense, however, most are veterans of the carrier's roller-coaster years and, being on the front line, have taken the verbal punches from passengers and the old management. As one long-timer told me, "We don't want to be the cute, pretty, blond babes in the air." They're about to enter contract negotiations, too.

In fact, America West's flight attendants have endured some incredibly cruel cuts in recent years. America West's despised former CEO, William Franke, is credited with pulling the airline out of bankruptcy but, to save money, he outsourced the recruiting of cabin crews to a Seattle consultancy. The consultants reportedly got paid based on the number of bodies hired, not necessarily on the flight attendants' friendliness and dedication to the job.

"We got some pretty bizarre people before they junked that idea," one America West survivor told me.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright 2001-2004 by Chris Barnett. All rights reserved.