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The US Airways name is about to fly into history

The US Airways name will pass into history Oct. 17, when the last flight under that name departs from San Francisco and lands in Philadelphia. The US Airways name and brand will be officially retired, with all systems combined under the new American Airlines.
The US Airways name will pass into history Oct. 17, when the last flight under that name departs from San Francisco and lands in Philadelphia. The US Airways name and brand will be officially retired, with all systems combined under the new American Airlines.

The last-ever US Airways flight will make its way across the nation in two weeks, with a stop in Charlotte. And when Flight 1939 touches down in Philadelphia the morning of Oct. 17, the US Airways name will be no more.

Almost two years after its 2013 merger with American Airlines, the combined company is ready to shed the last vestiges of the past and move forward as a single airline. From the mammoth tasks of merging reservation systems and flight schedules to details such as switching luggage tags and airport signs, American executives say they’re ready.

“I consider most of the heavy lifting to be complete. ... We’re about 98 percent done,” said Dalia Ballester, American’s managing director of customer care at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. She oversees nearly 800 gate and ticket agents and other workers who interact with customers. For months, they’ve been rotating through five-day training courses to learn how American’s systems work.

For Ballester and most other veteran airline employees at Charlotte Douglas, it’s a familiar routine. They’ve been through a slew of mergers as the industry consolidated: Piedmont Airlines, founded in Winston-Salem, folded into what was then USAir in 1989. America West merged with US Airways in 2005. Some employees still refer to US Airways as USAir, so switching to the American name could take time, Ballester said.

Everything pales in comparison to having a great airport.

Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot

For Charlotte, the merger’s culmination is a critical point in the city’s economic growth. By building a major airline hub in Charlotte, Piedmont helped raise the city’s profile. The airport is now the seventh busiest in the world in terms of takeoffs and landings, and it saw a record 44.3 million passengers last year. About 80 percent of them changed planes rather than starting or stopping their trip in Charlotte.

Charlotte is American’s second busiest hub, behind Dallas/Fort Worth. Economic developers frequently tout the airport as one of the city’s main assets, and nonstop access to more than 140 destinations from Charlotte is a major draw for big companies.

Others worry that American’s dominance at Charlotte Douglas – with about 90 percent of the airport’s daily flights – curtails choices for local travelers and results in higher fares. The average domestic airfare from Charlotte was almost $464 in the first quarter this year. That’s 19 percent higher than the national average of $388. And though a few low-cost carriers such as Frontier Airlines fly from Charlotte, their destinations are limited.

Nevertheless, former Mayor Richard Vinroot said the hub is the region’s most important economic asset, more significant even than the banks that put their stamp on Charlotte’s skyline or the NBA and NFL teams that have brought national attention.

“Everything pales in comparison to having a great airport,” Vinroot said.

Reassurances about hub’s future

Under former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, Charlotte Douglas built a reputation as a low-cost, no-frills airport for the airlines, and its location near Delta Air Lines’ Atlanta hub made Charlotte an ideal place for a competing airline to connect passengers in the Southeast. The airport saw steady growth, adding destinations as Piedmont changed to USAir and then to US Airways.

But Charlotte has always been a bit on edge about its status as a major hub.

“Every time there was a merger, we worried we would be left out,” said Vinroot, a Republican who served as mayor from 1991 to 1995 as the airport grew.

Other cities have seen stark declines in their flights as airlines changed their hub structure. The specter of Pittsburgh, which lost hundreds of daily flights and millions of passengers after US Airways dropped it as a hub in 2004, has loomed large through two US Airways bankruptcies and two mergers.

Charlotte has been seen as particularly vulnerable because of its smaller population relative to other major hub cities and its high percentage of connecting flights.

So far, Charlotte hasn’t seen drastic cuts in service. The airport kept its seventh busiest ranking in 2014, though the number of takeoffs and landings dropped 2 percent, to 545,178, as American switched out smaller regional jets for larger planes. The airport has seen a few overseas nonstop flights cut, such as those to Brazil, but has retained its premier routes, such as London.

American has repeatedly said it has no plans to cut the Charlotte hub.

CEO Doug Parker, who engineered both the America West and American mergers with US Airways, told business leaders at a private Charlotte Chamber breakfast recently that the airline is committed to keeping its Charlotte hub.

“I feel even better today than I did two years ago about the strength of our partnership,” said Brent Cagle, Charlotte Douglas’ interim aviation director. The airport kicked off an ambitious $2.5 billion expansion plan this year, which will widen the terminal roadway, expand the terminal and add dozens of new gates.

Lease negotiations underway

The culmination of the merger finds Charlotte Douglas, an independently funded city department, in the midst of negotiations with the airlines for a new master lease. The airport’s current master lease with the airlines – which governs how much the airlines pay to use Charlotte Douglas and gives them a share of the airport’s concessions revenue – expires in June.

When the lease was last negotiated in the mid-1980s, Piedmont was largely a regional carrier in a much more fragmented industry. Now the city finds itself negotiating a lease with the world’s largest airline.

Led by Haley Gentry, the airport’s assistant aviation director of business and revenue, city officials are meeting monthly with airline representatives to talk about the new lease. Unlike at other major airports such as Chicago and Philadelphia, where airlines have opposed expansion because they balk at paying higher costs, the airlines have signed off on Charlotte Douglas’ plans. That means there’s not much friction in the negotiations, Cagle said.

The airlines’ current lease includes a profit-sharing clause with the airport, under which Charlotte Douglas gives the carriers 40 percent of the airport’s profits on parking and concessions. The profit-sharing can offset much of what the carriers pay the airport. For example, US Airways received $10.4 million from the airport in 2012, largely offsetting the $17.6 million worth of fees the company paid Charlotte Douglas.

American emerged from its 2011 bankruptcy and US Airways merger in much stronger financial condition. Helped by plummeting fuel costs, which make up an airline’s largest expense, American has rebounded to record-breaking profits. In July, American reported a quarterly profit of almost $1.7 billion, almost double the same quarter a year ago.

The airline also won a major victory in North Carolina this year, when the N.C. General Assembly passed an American-backed proposal to exempt all jet fuel from sales taxes. Sales taxes had been capped at $2.5 million, with the amount paid over that refunded. American was the lone recipient of the tax break, which was set to expire. Legislative analysts said the cap could cost the state $10 million this year in refunds. Next year, the airline won’t have to pay the $2.5 million in sales taxes it had been liable for.

Not a ‘knife-edge’ transition

For American’s 100,000 or so employees, the combination with US Airways has been a tale of changes both massive and subtle. Every policy has to be combined at both airlines, covering everything from jet maintenance to the boarding script agents use to get people on planes.

For example, US Airways didn’t allow live pets to fly in a plane’s hold, while American did. They went with American’s policy, which meant US Airways employees had to be trained on how to check and handle live pets.

“It’s like planning for Christmas,” Ballester said of the intense preparation for Oct. 17.

The biggest difference in how the airline handled this merger was the way it merged its reservation systems. That’s regarded as the trickiest part of any airline merger, as those systems contain millions of customer records and schedules and often operate on antiquated software.

In its merger with America West, US Airways moved all of its reservations to a combined system at once, in one massive information technology crossover. The aptly named “knife-edge” transition, Ballester said, led to problems and delays for customers that rippled through the US Airways system.

This time around, the airline decided to do a slower, gradual process to switch reservations – a “drain-down” instead of a “knife-edge.” For the past three months, the airline has been moving reservations from US Airways’ system to American’s computers. The gradual process has allowed American to check along the way and make sure all of the critical information made it over, Ballester said.

“That was the biggest change from the last airline merger I was a part of,” she said.

About 40 to 50 extra workers from Dallas/Fort Worth will be on hand in Charlotte to help with the final switchover the weekend of Oct. 16, Ballester said. Managers are being scheduled to work around the clock that weekend to make sure everything goes smoothly.

For some in Charlotte, the transition will be nostalgic: Love it or hate it, US Airways was a Charlotte staple.

“I think the excitement outweighs the nostalgia,” Cagle said.

The transition is playing out from the skies to the inside of Charlotteans’ wallets. Vinroot recently got a new credit card in the mail from American Airlines. His first thought: junk mail.

“I had my scissors out about to cut the thing up,” Vinroot said. Then his wife reminded him – the American card was a replacement for his trusty US Airways card.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo

Five things travelers will see after Oct. 17

Although much of the work is done behind the scenes, travelers will still see some changes after US Airways is officially retired as a company Oct. 17.

▪ No more USAirways.com. The company’s website will go dark and you’ll go to AA.com, American Airlines’ website, instead.

▪ No more US Airways flight numbers or bookings. All itineraries will be American flight numbers and booked as American itineraries from Oct. 17 on. If you fly out on a US Airways flight before Oct. 17 and are set to return after that date, your return flight will be an American Airlines flight.

▪ The US Airways name will be gone throughout Charlotte Douglas. The US Airways name and logo, which have been ubiquitous throughout Charlotte’s airport for years, will be removed and replaced with American. In many places that’s already taken place. The changeover should be complete down to your luggage tags on Oct. 17.

▪ Totally combined loyalty program. Although US Airways’ Dividend Miles members have already been moved to American’s AAdvantage plan, fully combining the two airlines will make booking reward travel and upgrades simpler, with one set of policies and one airline to deal with.

▪ But you’ll still see US Airways planes. Repainting the planes is costly and time-consuming, so American is waiting until a jet needs major maintenance before sending it to the paint shop. All of the planes should be repainted in American colors by sometime in 2017.

Charlotte airport still in limbo

More than 2 1/2 years after the state legislature started a push to transfer control of Charlotte’s airport from Charlotte City Council to a new, independent commission, long-term control of the airport is still in limbo.

City Council remains in control of Charlotte Douglas, having initially blocked the new airport commission with a lawsuit. Although a judge ruled the commission can run the airport, the judge also said the Federal Aviation Administration must issue an airport operating certificate to the commission.

The FAA – led by the U.S. secretary of transportation, who opposed the commission as Charlotte mayor – hasn’t issued a certificate and hasn’t said when it might.

During the standoff, former Aviation Director Jerry Orr lost his job. He said he was fired, while the city said he resigned. Former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot represented the commission, and Orr, during the legal fight.

Ely Portillo

US Airways, American Airlines: A family tree

American Airlines’ history

1929: The Aviation Corp. is formed to buy aviation companies.

1930: The Aviation Corp.’s subsidiaries are incorporated into American Airways.

1934: American Airways becomes American Airlines.

1970 – 2001: American Airlines merges with or acquires Trans Carribbean Airways, Air California, Reno Air and Trans World Airlines.

2011: American Airlines files for bankruptcy.

February 2013: American Airlines and US Airways announce plans to merge.

December 2013: American Airlines and US Airways overcome a challenge from the U.S. Justice Department and close their merger, becoming one company, and start to combine their operations.

US Airways’ history

1939: All American Aviation starts life as an airmail carrier in western Pennsylvania and the Ohio Valley.

1948: Piedmont Airlines, founded in Winston-Salem, starts flying.

1953: All American becomes Allegheny Airlines, which carries passengers in addition to mail.

1972: Allegheny Airlines acquires Utica, N.Y.-based Mohawk Airlines.

1979: Allegheny Airlines becomes USAir and expands its route network coast-to-coast.

1982: Piedmont moves into a new, $64 million terminal at its Charlotte hub, a significant expansion for the airport.

1983: America West starts flying from Phoenix.

1986: Piedmont acquires Empire Airlines, with a hub in Syracuse, N.Y.

1987: Piedmont makes its first trans-Atlantic flight, from Charlotte to London. The airline also becomes a wholly owned subsidiary of USAir.

1988: USAir merges with Pacific Southwest Airlines.

1989: Piedmont is merged into USAir.

1997: USAir changes its name to US Airways.

2002: US Airways files for bankruptcy, emerging the next year from Chapter 11 protection.

2004: US Airways files for bankruptcy a second time.

2005: America West, led by CEO Doug Parker, merges with US Airways. Charlotte is the combined airline’s largest hub. US Airways is based in Phoenix and run by Parker.

February 2013: American Airlines and US Airways announce plans to merge.

December 2013: American Airlines and US Airways overcome a challenge from the U.S. Justice Department and close their merger, becoming one company, and start to combine their operations.

Oct. 17, 2015: The final US Airways flight is scheduled to take off from San Francisco and land in Philadelphia. The US Airways name and brand will be officially retired, with all systems combined under the new American Airlines.

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