Viewpoint

US Airways leaves in triumph on key measure

Nobody died and only one person was injured in the “Miracle on the Hudson” US Airways flight in 2009.
Nobody died and only one person was injured in the “Miracle on the Hudson” US Airways flight in 2009.

In mid-October, US Airways ceased to exist as an independent entity. Many passengers will doubtless say “good riddance,” for they voted the carrier a two-star rating from J. D. Power and ranked it below average on almost every dimension. But US Airways deserves a much fonder farewell than that.

I study aviation safety, and paid particular attention to the airline in the early 1990s, when it experienced a series of accidents culminating in a 1994 Boeing 737 crash near Pittsburgh that killed 132 people. Had US Airways suffered a temporary spasm of bad luck, or was the problem more systematic? We now know that bad luck was the main culprit. The 737 crash (which killed more passengers than the others in the series combined) was caused by a subtle defect in the rudder controls, which could have struck any airline that operated the plane. Moreover, US Airways experts were instrumental in uncovering the defect before it could cause further tragedies.

Since 1994, US Airways has achieved a safety record that was not only flawless but magnificent. Probably the most inspiring aviation event in the 21st century – if not the most inspiring event of any kind – was the miracle on the Hudson, in which a crippled US Airways plane landed in the water and all aboard were saved. It was no surprise that both President Bush and President-elect Obama rushed to call Captain Sullenberger with congratulations.

But two other recent events involving the airline were also extraordinary although less well-publicized. On a foggy night in Providence in 1999, US Airways Flight 2998 was cleared for takeoff. However, the pilots had been monitoring ground transmissions, and sensed that a Boeing 757 that had just landed was unsure of its position. To the obvious annoyance of the air traffic controller, the pilots “politely but pointedly” (in the words of a subsequent award) refused to take off until sure that the 757 had reached its gate. It later emerged that, when Flight 2998 was cleared for takeoff, the Boeing 757 was standing directly ahead of it on the runway. Through prudence and decisiveness, the pilots had avoided a horrific collision.

In 2005 in Boston, US Airways Flight 1170 and an Airbus 330 headed for Europe were simultaneously cleared for takeoff on criss-crossing runways, putting them on course for an imminent collision. The US Airways pilots saw what was wrong and, reacting instantly, kept the plane’s nose on the ground so that it passed barely below the Airbus, which had just lifted off. The 381 people on the two planes thus avoided a catastrophe.

US Airways is not the only large airline that avoided passenger deaths over the last two decades. But I know of no other carrier that prevented three potential disasters through spectacular displays of professional skill. On passenger safety – the most important dimension of all – one can readily argue that US Airways amassed the most distinguished record of all the world’s airlines in recent years.

But what of the many complaints about customer service on US Airways? Here what people do might be far more revealing than what they say.

On many key routes, US Airways achieves higher market shares than jetBlue and Southwest, the top-rated carriers for customer service.

US Airways was neither flashy nor ostentatiously elegant; it was always frumpy and unassuming. But in its last decades it was a terrific airline, which enhanced the reputation of American aviation and brought a billion passengers to their destinations without a single call to the next of kin. It is worth remembering with admiration and gratitude.

Arnold Barnett is an MIT statistics professor who specializes in aviation safety. Email: abarnett@mit.edu.

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