Published in January 2016 issue
By Chris Sloan
Just before sunrise on October 18, on a runway in Philadelphia, US Airways (US)
Flight 1939 touched down, 27 minutes ahead of schedule, on arrival from San Francisco.
It was the last flight ever for US Airways, which is now part of American Airlines (AA), marking the end of a 76-year-old carrier that, while never one of the great innovators, had survived waves of changes in commercial aviation history. The final flight drew to a close a two-year integration process that culminated with the merging of reservations systems.
We were on board as US Airways flew into the annals.
THE BEGINNINGS OF ALLEGHENY
Back in 1939, All American Aviation, founded by members of the famed DuPont Family and headquartered in Pittsburgh, started an airmail service to the communities in the Ohio River Valley. Ten years later, the company began to offer passenger service under the name of All American Airways.
In 1953, in recognition of the geographical area at the heart of its growing network, it became Allegheny Airlines. The airline expanded greatly through the 1950s and 1960s, relying on Convair CV-340s, CV- 580s, and Douglas DC-9s. At the end of the 1960s, Allegheny began its first commuter service, operated by Henson Aviation, forerunner of Piedmont Airlines. So was born the network of regional airlines that would become US Airways Express.
Allegheny grew in part by absorbing other airlines, including the Indianapolis-based Lake Central Airlines in 1968 and Mohawk Airlines four years later. By 1973, Allegheny was one of the largest carriers in the northeastern United States. In terms of passenger boarding, it was the sixth largest airline in the world.
Yet its real expansion was still to come.
DEREGULATION AND USAIR
The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 allowed airlines to expand their route networks, and Allegheny was no exception. The carrier began stretching into the southeastern US, and further added destinations in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, and Texas. In 1979, no longer an airline just for the American Northeast, it assumed the name USAir.
During the early ‘80s, USAir became the launch customer for the Boeing 737- 300—the first of the three members of the 737 ‘Classic’ series—and took an active part in developing the aircraft. Interestingly, Piedmont Airlines, which would eventually become part of USAir, was the launch customer of the larger -400 variant.
USAir kept expanding, acquiring Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) in 1986 and Piedmont Airlines a year later. PSA gave USAir a hub on the West Coast, while Piedmont provided a presence in the mid-Atlantic, with a hub in Charlotte, as well as its first wide-body fleet. The Boeing 767-200s allowed USAir to grow internationally, initially operating Charlotte–London Gatwick service and, later, flights from Charlotte and Pittsburgh to Frankfurt. The airline also flew from Philadelphia to Paris and London and from Baltimore to London.
In 1996, under the tenure of Stephen Wolf, the airline began service from Philadelphia to Munich, Rome, and Madrid, and also entered into a brief transatlantic alliance with British Airways (BA). This ended in a court battle in 1996, when BA announced a new partnership with American Airlines. That year, the airline also announced the biggest aircraft order ever placed: 400 Airbus A320 family aircraft, with deliveries to start in 1998.
These moves required USAir to develop a more international image; so, Wolf rebranded the airline with the name it would be known by last: US Airways.
THE SHUTTLE, METROJET, AND AIRBUS
The airline was officially rebranded as US Airways on February 27, 1997. Its planes showed off a new dark blue livery accentuated with red and white lines, with the US flag the new logo on the tail. That same year, US Airways acquired the remainder of the former Trump Shuttle. The new US Airways Shuttle operated exclusively on Boeing 727-200s, and later, on Airbus A320s.
US Airways ventured into the low-cost market in 1998 by introducing MetroJet, intended to compete with Southwest Airlines and Delta Express in the West, and with AirTran in the South. The division operated the oldest 737-200 in the fleet, which was used to the maximum before retirement. In 1998, as the first A320s began to arrive, the company selected Airbus for its wide-body needs, with an initial order for seven A330s, the first of which were delivered on March 30, 2000.
THE 9/11 AFTERMATH AND AMERICA WEST
In the early 2000s, hoping to simplify fleet types and reduce operational costs through commonality and improved efficiency, the airline began a transition to an all-Airbus fleet. Despite these advantages, US Airways suffered from a weak financial condition and considered merging into United Airlines. But the opposition of the unions and antitrust concerns put the conversations to an end in July 2001.
Then came September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks and their aftermath had a devastating impact on US Airways and the global airline industry as a whole. The temporary closure of Washington DC’s Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) took away a significant portion of its network and resulted in heavy financial losses.
Then the MetroJet low-cost division closed, furloughing thousands of employees. With that, US Airways dehubbed its Baltimore/Washington operations, and entry into Chapter 11 bankruptcy followed on August 11, 2002.
Yet another blow was the loss of the airline’s hub in Pittsburgh (PIT), its original home. The carrier attempted to negotiate lower operating fees and lease payments, but the Allegheny County Airport Authority rejected these demands, forcing US Airways to reallocate most of its flights to its Philadelphia (PHL) and Charlotte (CLT) hubs in November 2004.
Despite exiting bankruptcy in 2003, US Airways still faced a weakened financial position and continuing labor disputes. It filed again for bankruptcy on September 14, 2004. The airline came close to liquidating during the Christmas holiday rush of 2004, as many discontented employees opted to call in sick.
On May 19, 2005, Phoenix-based America West Airlines (HP) announced plans to merge with US Airways. Doug Parker, American West Chairman and CEO, would run the new US Airways Group and move the headquarters from Crystal City, Virginia, to Tempe, Arizona. The merger seemed to make sense because the route networks could complement one another and labor costs could be lowered. In August 2005, the company introduced a new livery, which retained the US flag as its logo. The airline kept the US Airways name because of its recognition, but retained America West’s ‘Cactus’ callsign and ‘AWE’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) designator. Bankruptcy officially ended on September 27, 2005.
In 2006, US Airways exceeded analyst expectations and made a profit during the first half of the year. It also became an Airbus A350 customer. The new business model defined the airline as a utilitarian lower cost/lower fare/lower frills (though not Low-Cost) carrier on its domestic routes, while providing a higher-end international premium service. Actually, US Airways was one of the first carriers to offer a 1+2+1 Business cabin configuration with an innovative hard product in its Envoy Class.
The airline also introduced heritage liveries on its A319s to commemorate Allegheny, America West, PSA, and Piedmont, as well as football team liveries from current and former hubs, including the Phoenix Cardinals, (Charlotte) Carolina Panthers, Philadelphia Eagles, and Pittsburgh Steelers. In December 2006, the Embraer 190 joined the mainline fleet, and the airline briefly considered taking over the struggling Delta Air Lines.
In 2007, the carrier ordered Airbus A330-200s to join its fleet of -300s and inaugurated service from Philadelphia to Athens, Brussels, and Zurich. On September 25, 2007, America West and US Airways obtained their Single Operating Certificate, and the reservation systems migrated into a single platform.
Still, as the merger progressed, US Airways struggled in categories such as on-time performance and customer satisfaction, despite starting to close the gap with other airlines. Also, ‘East’ (US Airways) and ‘West’ (America West) Pilots tussled over seniority issues. The parties reached an agreement through mediation, deciding to form a new union called the US Airline Pilots Association (USAPA), which would be the sole bargaining agent for all Pilots. Also in 2008, US Airways briefly flirted a second time with United Airlines about a possible merger, but, again, the talks didn’t progress.
Meanwhile, US continued to expand overseas. Birmingham (UK), Oslo, and Tel Aviv became new international destinations. Back in Pittsburgh, the airline activated a new Operations Control Center for its 1,300 mainline daily flights and, in October 2008, both carriers formally completed their consolidation.
MIRACLE ON THE HUDSON AND AA MERGER
It could have been a major tragedy for US Airways but, thanks to the skills and heroic actions of the crew, the event became the famous “Miracle on the Hudson’.
On January 15, 2009, an Airbus A320, operating Cactus Flight 1549 under the command of Captain Chesney ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, experienced a bird strike that resulted in loss of power to both engines shortly after departing New York LaGuardia Airport (LGA). Captain Sully was able to ditch the aircraft on the Hudson River, and all 150 passengers and five crew members survived.
As part of the optimization of its route network after the merger, US Airways closed its focus cities in Las Vegas and Boston, while growing its focus node at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport after trading La Guardia slots with Delta. This led to an antitrust dispute with the Department of Justice, which was settled two years later. In 2010, and for a third time, US Airways considered merging with United but, in the end, the Chicago-based carrier went on to merge with Continental Airlines.
Consolidation speculation continued into 2011, as many analysts considered it unavoidable for US Airways to merge with one of the ‘Big Three’ (American, Delta, and United). In early 2012, industry analysts speculated that US Airways could merge with American—another struggling carrier. Although AA management, led by Tom Horton, was reluctant to merge, preferring to emerge from bankruptcy before exploring other scenarios, AA creditors and unions quickly supported US Airways. Eventually the rumors came to fruition; in the deal announced on December 7, the new airline would keep the American Airlines name and would be based at American’s headquarters in Dallas/Fort Worth.
The US Airways Group and American’s parent AMR Corporation formally announced their merger on February 14, 2013. Doug Parker, who was already CEO of the US Airways Group, became the CEO of the new American Airlines Group. The US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block the merger in August 2013, claiming it would result in less competition. Three months later, all parties reached a settlement that allowed the merger to proceed under a series of conditions, including the divestment of some slots at key airports, including Washington Reagan and New York La Guardia, to foster competition. On December 9, 2013, the largest air carrier in the world was formed.
US Airways entered the merger with hubs in Charlotte, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Ronald Reagan Washington National, and had full ownership of regional subsidiaries Piedmont and PSA. During 2015, the carriers went through major steps towards the consolidation of the merger. In April, AA and US obtained the Single Operating Certificate (SOC), and the Cactus radio callsign that identified US Airways flights became history.
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THE FAREWELL FLIGHT
The Passenger Services System (PSS) integration team and the senior leadership of American Airlines voted to ‘go’ on the reservations integration on July 8, issuing a vast schedule change 10 days later: all US Airways flights on or after October 17 were converted to American Airlines. Under the revised schedule, an overnight red-eye from San Francisco to Philadelphia would be the last-ever departure under the US Airways brand.
On October 16, 2015, flight US434 became US1939 for the commemoration. The number was selected to honor the year in which forerunner All American Aviation had been established.
On the last day of operations of the US Airways brand, the check-in area at San Francisco International Airport seemed as calm as ever. But it was obvious that a celebration was about to kick in: Gate Agents festooned the area with balloons and wore pins honoring the US Airways legacy carriers—America West, Piedmont, and PSA—to receive passengers for the last time. Over 1,000 non-revenue passengers, who for nostalgia reasons, wanted to be on the wait list manifest.
The festive atmosphere at check-in was but a precursor to the full-on party at Gate 45 of Concourse C in Terminal 1, from where US Airways flights had normally operated. There, people from all over the US, Canada, and even the Netherlands were buzzing with excitement at a full buffet that American Airlines had laid out for the event.
Enthusiasm was everywhere. 13-year-old Ethan Hellofs, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, had asked his parents for an early birthday present: to be on the last flight. Just a week earlier, he had been given an early Merry Christmas envelope containing the flight itinerary. Meanwhile, former Flight Attendant Glenda Yerse wore a fancy 1970 Allegheny uniform. She had started with the airline in 1968 and had retired in 2005 with US Airways.
The last US Airways flight was operated by an Airbus A321 (Registration N152UW/MSN 5588), served by a Philadelphia-based crew led by Captains Douglas Rice and William Koone. There were five in the cabin crew: Kathy Chamberlin, Mary Beltrand-Nylen, Malva McSween, Robin Agee and Roger Holmin.
None of American Airlines’ senior executive leadership boarded the flight. According to an AA spokesperson, they were ‘hunkered down’ at the Robert W. Baker Network Operations Center (NOC) during the passenger services system (PSS) cutover.
However, 90-year-old Ed Colodny, former USAir CEO and the most important figure in the airline’s 76-year history, was scheduled to board.
Colodny had joined Allegheny as its first staff attorney in 1957. He was named president and CEO in 1975, a position that he held until his retirement in 1991. His presence at the event drew applause from the US Airways staff. He 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,” Colodny said. “It may be the last US Airways flight, but it is not the end of US Airways. We celebrate our customers, employees and investors, who enabled us to fly aircraft all the way from the DC-3 to the A330. What a great ride!
“I have 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 it is our future. I know that, as nostalgic as I am 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, Denise Marrs, San Francisco AA Station Manager, gave the boarding speech by welcoming the passengers and reminding all in attendance: “Tonight, you are part of history. Tomorrow, US Airways becomes part of the proud history of American Airlines.”
With all the excitement, boarding was slower than usual but, in the end, the author was the last US Airways passenger ever to embark. To commemorate the flight, all passengers were handed two commemorative items: an amenity kit and a challenge coin.At 21:42, the boarding door was closed and the PA announced: “Welcome aboard our final US Airways flight. It’s a celebration not just of US Airways, but of all the airlines that came together to create it.”
Pushback took place punctually at 21:45. Interestingly, we were held on the ground for three minutes to allow flight US605 from Phoenix to Calgary to takeoff before us, thus assuring without any doubt that US1939 was the last mainline (as opposed to regional line) US Airways departure ever. Takeoff roll began at 22:06 and, much to the author’s surprise, there was no applause from the 187 passengers…perhaps owing to the late hour. For departure, our flight did not use the US Airways callsign but All American Aviation’s, another distinctive touch by the crew to honor the carrier’s history.
Kathy Chamberlin was the lead Flight Attendant. Shortly after takeoff, she invited passengers to a cruising altitude Champagne service to toast US Airways employees and the company’s past, 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 party atmosphere at the gate and to 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 the atypical nature of this red-eye flight, cabin lights were not dimmed for most of the time. The attendants served free sandwiches in Coach while offering a choice of charcuterie or cheese and crackers to Business Class passengers.
The hours passed but the enthusiasm was not diluted through the crossing of time zones. The cabin lights were turned off for sleep two hours before the plane flew into the sunrise—and the US Airways brand flew into the sunset. As a final ritual before landing, the crew passed out individual slips of paper to place on the windows, each spelling out ‘LAST FLIGHT’. Thanks to the on-time departure and tailwinds, our flight touched down with a grease job 27 minutes ahead of schedule at 05:51 local, just before sunrise; with a smattering of applause, our flight became AA1939.
As we parked at gate A12, a final PA announcement thanked us for joining the flight crew on this special occasion, and invited those on board to make new memories on American Airlines. Though the arrival lacked a water cannon salute, the ramp was swarmed by nostalgic and curious employees, welcoming the final US Airways flight home.
Each deplaning passenger was cheered at the gate by a crowd estimated to be of 1,000 people.
A HERITAGE GOING FOR GREAT
US Airways and its heritage carriers will be visible on special American Airlines retro jets for some time to come. Moreover, part of the fleet will still be wearing the US Airways brand as the aircraft wait for their new American Airlines paintjobs. The last US mainline aircraft will be painted by mid-2016; the last regional planes will be done six months later.
According to Brett Snyder, owner of The Cranky Flier blog, the merger has gone “extremely well.”
“It’s hard to find much in the way of flaws,” Snyder writes. “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.”
Some integration work lays ahead, mainly in the Flight Operations System, the2016 launch of the new uniforms, and the final step: the integration of Tech Ops.
While some of the airlines that formed US Airways had pioneered code-sharing agreements and transatlantic alliances, Henry Harteveldt, CEO of Atmosphere Research, believes the airline will not be remembered as a true pioneer.
Instead, the most remarkable and important component of US Airways’ legacy is its sheer survival, particularly in the deregulation era, through a remarkable series of mergers, integrations (or lack thereof), hub openings and closures, and evolving competition. Despite all, the US Airways brand always managed to somehow find a way through.
At the end of the day, US Airways may have left the building, but it will never leave the annals of aviation history, the hearts of its loyal employees, or the gratefulness of its customers.