Consumers can expect gradual changes after American Airlines merger

Posted Sunday, Dec. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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With American Airlines and US Airways merging today to form the world’s largest airline, the best advice for travelers may be to simply carry on.

Many changes are coming in months ahead. But for travelers at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport and other airports nationwide, the differencesw will likely be subtle for a few months.

That should be good news during this holiday season, when the usual hustle and bustle experienced by frequent fliers is amplified by the presence of less experienced — and often stressed-out — leisure travelers.

“The first thing that we’re going to focus on is to make sure that, as we start to introduce changes, we do it in such a way that it is not at all disruptive to the customer. We’ll start doing some of that in early January,” said Ameriican’s Treasurer Beverly Goulet, who will be chief integration officer at the combined carrier. “We are focused and will continue to focus heavily on making sure that comes off without a hitch.”

For now, American, its partner American Eagle and US Airways will operate separately — although behind the scenes they’ll be under the same corporate umbrella, based in Fort Worth.

But at DFW and terminals worldwide, travelers can expect gradual changes beginning with the installation of a code-sharing system to coordinate bookings on either airline and integration of frequent-flier programs.

Overall, the merger will take an estimated 18 to 24 months to complete.

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions, based on responses from American officials and air travel industry experts:

I have flights booked on US Airways for the holidays. Will my flights change?

No. Travelers can expect to proceed with their scheduled itinerary.

Though the US Airways brand will gradually be folded into the American motif, customers will see no changes at airport terminals until after the holidays. And even then, the changes are expected to be rolled out gradually.

The new airline’s management team doesn’t want to create confusion and stress during one of the year’s busiest travel times, a spokesman said. If you bought a ticket to fly US Airways through the new year, you can expect to board a plane sporting the US Airways logo and operated by a crew wearing US Airways uniforms.

How will the merger affect flights at DFW?

During the coming months, one key difference at DFW and many other airports may be fewer delays at the new American Airlines, which will be run by US Airways management, one industry observer said.

“One thing that should greatly improve is operations performance,” said Brett Snyder, founder of the travel website Crankyflier.com. “US Airways is very good at running an on-time airline. It should be a dramatic improvement in quality, reliability and even safety.”

Other than that, don’t expect immediate changes at DFW for many months.

The merger calls for DFW to remain a major hub. American Airlines and American Eagle combined represent more than three-fourths of departures at DFW — with flights departing from Terminals A, B, C and D — and that’s not expected to change.

For now, US Airways will continue to operate daily departures out of Terminal E. Eventually those flights will be blended in with American service, though it’s not yet known whether the new American will want a presence at Terminal E.

How long will US Airways operate under that name?

Probably until 2015. It’s expected to take up to two years for the airlines to merge completely. Many details large and small remain to be resolved.

For example, the airlines have a combined 200 stations domestically that will need to be integrated, said US Airways Chief Operating Officer Robert Isom, who will have the same job at the new American. One of the first things they will do is move American’s gates at the Phoenix airport next to the US Airways gates since they currently fly out of different terminals and there is no way to get between those two terminals without going outside of a security checkpoint.

Also, the new American Airlines must apply for a federally issued certificate to fly as one entity.

“How do you get the airline to really operate as one? … That is a whole exercise that involves things like the [FAA] single operating certificate,” Isom said. “We’re looking at 18 to 24 months. That is a timing we hope to achieve. We’ve been working on that for a number of months even with the delay and the close. We continue to work really aggressively to stay on track.”

When can I use my American Airlines frequent-flier miles to buy a flight on US Airways?

Perhaps as soon as January. Merging the two frequent-flier programs is expected to be one of the first orders of business at the new year, and an announcement with details on how it will be accomplished could come as soon as Jan. 7.

“In early January, we will have frequent-flier reciprocity for many of the frequent-flier benefits so you can have reciprocal earn and burn on each airline’s metal,” said Scott Kirby, who will be president of the new American. “That is probably the No. 1 issue on many of our customers’ agendas. We will have code share, we hope, done in the first quarter of next year, which means all the US Airways flights will have the American Airlines code on it, so any customer will be able to buy a ticket on a US Airways flight through the American Airlines website, for example.”

Some details haven’t been publicized. Kirby said American will continue to be part of the oneworld alliance during the first quarter of 2014, which allows international code-sharing. But the change is going to be a jolt for US Airways customers, who were accustomed to being members of the Star alliance, which has about 28 member airlines and a reputation for lower fees.

When will they have all the planes repainted with the American colors? Will they keep the new plane livery design that American has started to implement?

This is a sensitive issue.

American began painting its fleet with the new logo before the merger. Traditionally, American was known for its polished aluminum, rather than painted planes. But in an effort to replace its fleet with newer, lighter aircraft, American is switching to planes made of lighter-weight composite materials — and the exteriors of those planes need to be painted.

So the airline’s traditional polished aluminum livery is being replaced with planes painted red, white and blue with shiny silver flakes.

But US Airways officials who will take over management of the new American Airlines haven’t committed to sticking with American’s livery, fueling speculation that another new logo design is quietly in the works.

“No comment on the livery,” said US Airways CEO Doug Parker, who is taking over as chief executive at American. “That is one of the things we have to decide.”

Of the new American paint scheme, Parker said: “I think it’s really well-done. I think it looks great. I do think that airline executives spend far too much time worrying about the livery of the airplane. The customers don’t care about it. I don’t want to fall into that trap and spend all my time worrying about liveries. I’m not. It’s important to the brand so it needs to be consistent to the brand. It’s important to our employees so I care about what our employees think. But that is not near the top of the list of things we’re worrying about right now.”

Will fares go up?

There is no way to accurately predict fares, which are affected by factors inc;uding competition, consumer habits and fuel prices. Critics say it’s a no-brainer that fares will increase. When two companies merge into one, that by definition reduces competition and provides the airline with little motivation to hold down costs for consumers.

Fares have gone up after other airline mergers in recent years, although industry experts say factors such as fuel costs played a major role.

Will airline fees change because of the merger?

No changes are expected for now, as both airlines continue to operate separately after the merger. Eventually, when they merge into a single airline, the differences in fees for checked baggage, flight changes and other services will be reconciled.

Staff Writer Andrea Ahles contributed to this report.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson

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