MIAMI— Early in the morning of Saturday, October 17th at 05:51 EDT, the curtain finally came down for US Airways (US) as flight 1939, the airline’s last branded flight ever, landed at Philadelphia International Airport. From now and on, all future flights will be under the American Airlines banner.

The last flight not only marks the disappearance of the last legacy US mainline brand beyond the “Big Four” US airlines — American, Delta Air Lines, Southwest and United Airlines — but also is the culmination of the events put into motion two and a half years ago, when American Airlines (AA) and US announced their merger on Valentine’s Day 2013.

The initial stage of the merger was not easy as a series of lawsuits threatened its future. Eventually, the Department of Justice approved it with a series of conditions, including the divesment of some slots  at some key airports including Dallas Love Field, Washington Reagan and New York La Guardia, to foster competition.

After this announcement, both carriers began to push forward the integration ever since the merger was finally consummated on December 9, 2013. Then, on April 7 2015 both carriers began to operate under a Single Operating Certificate (SOC), and the Cactus radio callsign was replaced by the American one.

The last flight of US Airways was flown by an Airbus A321 (Registration N152UW / MSN 5588). The airliner delivered in May 2013 is one of the last aircraft delivered to US. Poignantly, number 1939 was chosen to commemorate the year in which forerunner All American Aviation was established.

On its last day of operations under the US Airways brand, flight 1939 operated a nostalgic and emotive 5,394 miles coast-to-coast trek: Philadelphia – Charlotte – Phoenix – San Francisco – Philadelphia in which the 76 years of history of the fabled airline was commemorated. Whatever adulation and passion the former US Airways failed to inspire by the traveling public, the airline certainly boasts an appreciative fanbase in loyal customers and proud employees.

The US Airways brand doesn’t stand for much in my mind.  It came out of a Stephen Wolf-engineered attempt to make the carrier seem more important and global than it was under the USAir moniker.  It saw maybe a couple years of success until it all came crashing down near the turn of the century.  Then it limped along, somehow avoiding death.  The airline effectively died in 2005.  It’s just that America West happened to change its name the same day.

As far as the entity, Allegheny/USAir/US Airways was the scrappy local service carrier that survived the longest.  I think scrappy is probably the best word to describe the airline, though it’s not clear how kind history will be to this mash-up of airline.

Brett Snyder – The Cranky Flier.

I appreciate all the effort its employees have put into it and I respect AA CEO Doug Parker, AA COO Robert Isom and AA President Scott Kirby. They did the best they could with the hand that they were dealt. But US Airways was a utilitarian brand. It won’t be held in the high regard of the some carriers like Pan Am and TWA. Nor does it approach the regard of US Airways legacy brands such as PSA and Piedmont.

Henry Harteveldt – Atmosphere Research.

Though much to the chagrin of many, Washington National and Pittsburgh, the birthplace of US and former hub were not included in the ceremonial routing.

THE CELEBRATION AT THE VALLEY OF THE SUN: PHOENIX

Gates A5-A7 in Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (the original hub of antecedent airline America West) were decorated by the staff, in preparation of flight US1939 inbound from Charlotte. At the airport, all signage has all been changed to American.  There was no sign of US Airways anywhere inside the terminal.

Staff and passengers alike got their photos taken in front of an US Airways model brought for the occasion Including 13-year-old Ethan Hellofs who ended up being on all legs (left picture) and Airways correspondent / photographer Ben Wang (right picture).

Flight US 1939 arriving from Charlotte (CLT) receiving a water cannon salute from the Phoenix Fire Department. Arriving passengers from CLT on board US 1939 received a rousing welcome by airport staff members.  Many were interviewed by the local media.

All passengers at PHX received a cupcake with a box adorned by logos of all predecessor American carriers. and everyone at the gate in PHX enjoyed sandwiches and cookies.

Passengers were called to board via Gate A7, and upon boarding, souvernirs from PHX were given to the passengers.

You know the flight is special when you see this on the catering bin!

Staff gathered at the next gate photographing US 1939’s departure from PHX.  It probably was not a coincidence that the Allegheny retrojet was parked next to the 2 year old Airbus A321,

Soon after pushback we began to taxi and US1939 rolled down runway 08 to perform a high speed takeoff. The captain told everyone on the right side of the aircraft to wave at the photographers watching us at the terminal. Climb took approximately 20 minutes to break through the top of the ceiling.

Everyone received a commemorative cookie to go with their Champagne for a toast to US Airways and a bright future at American. Meanwhile, we were rewarded with a beautiful setting sunlight on the storm clouds below.  Unfortunately, due to the turbulence, the seat belt light was only off for a few minutes, extinguishing any opportunities at socializing with fellow enthusiasts on board the flight, damping the joyous mood on board.

Our descent and arrival to San Francisco were uneventful. Flight US1939 touched down on Runway 28L to the applause of everyone on board.  The lead flight attendant thanked everyone for participating in the historical flight with us.  Total flight time gate to gate duration was two hours.

The crew of US 1939 from Phoenix to San Francisco was led by Captain Richard Mitchell.

ONE LAST SHOT: SAN FRANCISCO – PHILADELPHIA

The US Airways check-in area at San Francisco International Airport seemed to be calm just like any other day, but it was obvious that a celebration was about to kick in:  Gate agents festooned the area in balloons and wore pins of US Airways legacy carriers — America West, Piedmont, and PSA — to receive passengers for US Flight 1939 for the last time. Over one thousand non-revenue passengers were on wait list, who for nostalgia reasons wanted to be on the manifest.

 There is a lot of nostalgia tonight as US is going away. I have been with America West, US Airways, and Now American. I am proud of what we did. A lot of people are coming from everywhere: Alaska, Holland, Florida. It’s like a family reunion. Pretty much all passengers are aware that they are on the last fight.

Joy J. AA Customer Service

The festive atmosphere at check-in was but a precursor to the full on party going on at Gate 45 of Concourse C in SFO’s Terminal 1 where US Airways flights normally operate from. There, people from all over the United States, Canada and even from the Netherlands were buzzing with excitement in a full buffet that American Airlines laid out for the event.

Former flight attendant Glenda Yerse arrived from Phoenix wearing a 1970 Allegheny uniform. She started with the airline in 1968 and retired in 2005 with US Airways.

My whole career was with US Airways and it is my family. It’s bittersweet, but it is also so cool to be a part of the last flight. It was unbelievable. I wanted to do cabin service, but I was sitting at the window!

Enthusiasm was everywhere. Ethan Hellofs from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, asked for his parents for an early birthday present: to be on the last flight. Just a week ago, he was given an early Merry Christmas envelope contaning the flight itinerary.

When I found out about flight 1939, the last US Airways operated flight, I really wanted to be a passenger on that flight and be part of aviation history.  Since Delta and Northwest have merged, as have United and Continental, I didn’t think there would be another opportunity to participate in another major airline merger.  I asked my parents if we could go on flight 1939 as an early Christmas present and they said they would think about it, but I didn’t think it would happen.  Last week, they surprised me by giving me the tickets for the entire 1939 journey from Philadelphia, Charlotte, Phoenix, San Francisco and back to Philadelphia. I am so excited!  This is something I will never forget! 

The last leg of the flight was going to be operated by a Philadelphia-based crew, commanded by Captain Douglas Rice and William Koone. The cabin crew was comprised of five very senior flight attendants (above the normal compliment of four FA’s): Katht Chamberlin, Mary Beltrand-Nylen, Malva McSween Robin Agee and Roger Holmin.

It’s a wonderful occasion to be joining the world’s largest airline. I am fortunate to have the seniority to bid this. I was 29 when I joined PSA, so being here in San Francisco to fly the last flight is a full circle and a tremendous honor. My emotions need to be kept in check as I am a pilot, and I have to operate a flight.

Captain Douglas Rice, Flight US1939 Commander.

No American Airlines senior executive leadership boarded flight 1939. According to an airline spokesperson, they were “hunkered down” at the  Robert W. Baker Network Operations Center (NOC) during the PSS cutover. However, 90-year-old Ed Colodny, former USAir CEO in the late 1980s joined the celebration. Colodny oversaw the mergers of PSA and Piedmont. He flew in from Philadelphia just to turn back around.

Colodny’s presence at the event was not unnoticed and drew applause from the US Airways staff. As the most noteworthy celebrity present, the seemingly beloved Colodny signed aircraft models, was mobbed for autographs, and shared a few words:

I am so thrilled  and surprised to see you all here for this celebration. It may be the last US Airways flight, but it is not the end of US Airways. We celebrate our customers, employees and investors, so we could buy aircraft all the way from the DC-3 to the A330s. What a great ride! I thought about it and I am so proud to have created an entity that’s now part of an even bigger one: American Airlines. We celebrate American because this is our future. I know as much nostalgia I have for US, Airways, I will be equally proud to be a customer of American, because you are part of a great team.

At 21:05 local, final boarding announcement began. Denise Marrs, San Francisco station manager for AA welcomed the passengers, and reminded all in attendance:

Tonight you are part of history. Today’s flight 1939 routes are over five thousand miles. Tomorrow, US Airways becomes part of the proud history of American Airlines.

Among the 187 passengers on the last leg, there were three who flew all four US1939 segments. Besides Ethan Hellofs, Stephen Akwari from Phoenix and Habib Issa, a US employee from Los Angeles shared their experience with us.

I am an AvGeek. I appreciate all the hard work of US Airways and am sad to see it go.

Stephen Akwari. Flight US1939 Passenger

I am a stock clerk for US Airways. I spent two hours online reservations on Aug 17th to be on the last flight. It’s been amazing. My highlight has been seeing all the people at different celebrations. Each stations has done something individual and special.

Habib Issa. Flight US1939 Passenger

Due to the excitement of the moment, boarding was slower than usual, but at the end, I was the last passenger to embark… The last US Airways passenger flight to embark.

At the moment of boarding, all Passengers were handed two commemorative items: An amenity kit (though surprisingly not a US Airways retro example) and a challenge coin to commemorate the flight. At 21:42 boarding door was closed and the PA announced:

Welcome aboard our final US Airways flight. It’s a celebration of not just US Airways, but all the airlines that came together to create it.

Meanwhile, the savvy American Airlines corporate communications team and the cabin crew kept encouraging the live tweeting of the flight using the hashtag #US1939. We were only too happy to oblige as you can see in our real-time twitter feed of the entire event.

Despite the slow boarding procedure, pushback began at 21:45. Interestingly, our flight did not use the US Airways callsign but All American Aviation for departure out of San Francisco, the sole city of the route that was not a US Airways hub.

We were held on the ground during three minutes to allow flight US605 from Phoenix to Calgary to takeoff before us, so to assure without question that US1939 was the last mainline US Airways departure ever. Takeoff roll began at 22:06 and much to my surpise, no applause from the 187 passengers this time…perhaps owing to the late hour.

Kathy Chamberlin was the lead flight attendant. Shortly after takeoff, she invited passengers to a champagne service at cruising altitude to toast US Airways employees and its legacy, naming every US legacy carrier. The atmosphere turned festive, if slightly muted – somewhere between a family reunion and a cocktail party. There was very little milling about but most passengers were clearly reveling in the moment.

Compared to the pandemonium party atmosphere at the gate and all the hype, the flight itself was somewhat subdued, but very few people slept. Most were onboard to take part in history, and as a proof of this atypical red-eye flight, cabin lights were not dimmed much of the flight. As proof that this was a special occasion, AA preferred a free sandwiches in coach… and on a red-eye no less! For business class passengers. a choice or charcuterie or cheese and crackers was offered.

This two-year-old Airbus A321 is a stark proof of how utilitarian US Airways was: No AC power, inflight entertainment systems, and not even drop-down screens or USB ports anywhere onboard regardless of cabin. One of the post-merge tasks ahead for American Airlines will be to harmonize the US legacy fleet with is own onboard product.

The cabin crew was a very senior bid. Of the five cabin crew members, the most junior person has been working with the company for 26 years.

I bid this very carefully. It’s bittersweet as I love US Airways. It’s not just a name, it’s special. Personally, I never thought I would be on this trip, and I didn’t want to miss it. We were just a small airline when I joined Allegheny in Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis was the furtherest west we went, and now we are the world’s largest airline!

Katherine Chamberlin, lead flight attendant US1939.

In this case, we are having to adopt American’s procedures where in the past other airlines adopted to our procedures. This is our 7th merger. We are the little airline that could and we finally did. It’s so great to feel secure now. I traded to bid this. I wanted to turn the lights off for the last time. I felt like I had to be there because I feel I made a difference for our flight attendants. I wanted to experience with my colleagues.

Roger Holmin, US Airways FA Union president, flight attendant US1939.

Hours passed by and time zones were crossed. The A321 climbled to 37,000 feet. Meanwhile, cabin lights were turned off for sleep with two hours left to go before the US Airways brand flew into into the sunset, or in our case the sunrise.

However not all on board were aware of this special occasion. A passenger near me complained to the crew about the flight. And despite the fact he was really upset, the flight attendants did everything they could. Needless to say their work was superb.

As a final ritual before landing, the cabin crew passed out individual slips of paper with a letter inscribed on each of them to place on the windows, spelling out “last flight.”

We left the gate on time in San Francisco and thanks to the tailwinds, our flight touched down with a grease job 27 minutes ahead of schedule at 05:51 local, just before sunrise, and with a smattering of applause, our flight became AA1939.

As we parked at gate A12 the final PA announcement thanked us for joining the flight crew on the very last US Airways flight, inviting those on board to make new memories on American Airlines. Though the arrival was devoid of a water cannon salute, the ramp was swarmed by nostalgic and curious employees welcoming the final US Airways flight home.

When we deplaned, a cheering crowd and applause greeted each passenger, making this flight a memorable one. This flight was a moment created mostly for the US team and their customers, but behind the scenes there was something more important at stake.

BEHIND THE SCENES

From a operational standpoint, today’s cutover to the combined PSS is even more significant – perhaps the most trying moment of the merger. Today it is considered as the final major milestone when both airlines merge.

American opted to break the integration into pieces over time, in order to avoid a major meltdown this weekend. Maya Liebman, chief information officer for American explained that US Airways’ Dividend Miles frequent flyer program was merged with American’s Aadvantage in March, and reservations began to migrate in July to minimize the number of bookings to be moved to the next day. The airline created a command centre to oversee the shift, and trained thousands of employees on the new systems ahead.

This has the full focus of the 100,000 American team members. We are all completely committed to getting this right.

Maya Liebman, Chief Information Officer, American Airlines.

The traumatic experiences of America West/  US Airways in 2006 and United / Continental in 2011 proved to be valuable lessons for the industry. Now, rather than doing a single complete transfer, a “drain down” approach was used.

So far the merger has gone extremely well.  It’s hard to find much in the way of flaws.  Of course, people can disagree about whether a specific new policy is good or not, but the reality is that the implementation has gone very well.  Hopefully that continues through the PSS cutover.  What has the biggest issue been?  Maybe it was the cut to food.  That seemed to cause quite the uproar, but management listened and fixed it.

Brett Snyder – The Cranky Flier.

During a media call, Liebman explained that even if most of the operational integration will take place today, there are still some systems such as flight tracking and workgroups, for example, seniority lists that will remain separated through 2016.
This morning, airports and flights will be the most prominent touch point for passengers as the US Airways logos and signage come down at airports across America, the usairways.com website was shutdown and redirected to aa.com, the 90-day drain down from US to AA reservation system is completed and all former US flight numbers were reassigned with new AA flight numbers. Only an aircraft left in the US Airways livery that debuted earlier this year with American Airlines titles will symbolize the union between both carriers.

The way this weekend evolves has been an ongoing story as we will witness first hand today at Philadelphia as we make our way home. Initial reports though indicate zero cancelled flights and as I headed home from Philadelphia operations seemed normal. Still, the recently opened Robert W. Baker Network Operations Center (NOC) is going to be a very interesting place the days to come.

At the end of the day, US Airways may have left the building but it’s very clear that it will never leave the annals of aviation history, the hearts of its loyal employees, and gratefulness of its customers.