This will be a funny read for the less initiated in airline elite status and frequent flyer miles. You will think I must be nuts, and you would be correct. I’ll warn you now that I will jump from topic to topic and back again. But hey…it’s my blog…and since it says MJ Speaks on Travel at the top, and not….well….let’s just say a more accomplished writer, I get to ramble at will.

March can be a sad or happy time for the frequent flyer. You see, March 1 is when the elite status clocks “reset” for the new year, and you either maintain, increase, or lose altogether, your elite status in your favorite airline’s frequent flyer program. This year, I am both happy and sad. I have descended from USAirways’ top elite level, Chairman’s Preferred, to dirt. Dirt would be what I equate to no status! I am both happy and sad about that. Sad to lose the angels (and they really are angels) at the Chairman’s Preferred desk, but happy to finally delete myself from participation in the USAirways Dividend Miles program. It’s a nostalgic moment for me as the frequent flyer plan that would ultimately become the Dividend Miles program, Piedmont’s Frequent Flyer Bonus program, was the first airline miles scheme I ever signed up for at the ripe old age of 17.

The airline then called USAir bought Piedmont back in the late 1980s and promptly brought ruination to what, in my opinion at least, was the last airline based in the United States of America to actually be worth a damn. But hey…that’s a topic for another post….or perhaps a whole blog. I’ve moved on. I’ll certainly continue to fly USAirways (after their reservations system is fixed) if the price and schedule make it compelling, but I will credit that travel to the United Mileage Plus program as long as that option remains available through the Star Alliance. On a purely personal note, I’m hopeful that USAirways will manage to fix itself. I have a friend or two working there, and they are good people who deserve better than what they’ve gotten from this company.

Dividend Miles has changed considerably since the takeover by America West. One could successfully argue that change was needed. USAirways was in the midst of its second bankruptcy, burning through cash and its remaining assets at an alarming rate, and probably headed for the ash heap when the America West deal came along. America West, no crown jewel of an airline itself, was in slightly better shape, but ultimately headed in the same direction as USAirways if one takes an honest look at the facts. I won’t even delve into things like hedge money, Bruce Lakefield’s (then USAirways CEO) connections as a former big-whig on Wall Street, and just plain hubris, but basically, some financing got cobbled together and a merger was born!

From a financial perspective, the merger has been a huge success. The new USAirways has turned into one of the more profitable airlines in the industry. Cheap labor (or no labor–if you were standing in line anywhere over the holidays looking for help from a real live person, you know what I mean), terminated pensions, and a pretty swell economy will do that for an airline.

But there’s this other piece of the airline business that doesn’t get a lot of sexy press. It’s the side of an airline with which I am the most familiar, we call it “operations.” And that is where the rubber meets the runway at any airline, especially an airline that is trying to merge itself with another. You see…spin artists, marketing gurus, bean counters and such don’t have much time to think about questions like… “Will the catering cart on my airplane fit on their airplane?” and “Are the engines on my Airbus the same as your Airbus?” Unfortunately, the answer to those questions and thousands more like them is usually no. Usually, the “deal” gets done first and the hard questions about actually making the new airline fly get asked later…..much later.

Now…most of the airline people I know, even the coneheads in finance and HR, are pretty dedicated people. They work hard, play hard, and aren’t real big on failing to get the job done. So tasks like putting 2 airlines together eventually get done. But oh the agony along the way. Agony like not adequately testing electronic check-in kiosks that are now utilized to check-in the majority of your Customers!!! I understand through some friends of mine that even today, nearly one week after this debacle, many USAirways kiosks remain out of service with no real clue as to when they will be fixed, and what went wrong in the first place. If the leaders at USAirways do know what went wrong, they sure aren’t sharing. I spoke with an acquaintance in management at USAirways this past week about the problems with the reservations cutover. In their defense, this individual is not an airport person, and was likely just spouting what she’d been told by someone else. But you won’t believe what she said when I queried about the problems they’d been having. I quote: “this is really no worse than a bad snow day.” Now, I wasn’t there, but I know a few people who were. And I know how to read and frequent a little website called I think I am pretty safe in saying that this debacle was one helluva lot worse than a bad snow day!

Which brings me to this. I think the senior leadership at USAirways is pretty smart. I think they are smart enough to fix this. But one has to wonder if they really believe this debacle has been no worse than a bad snow day? If they’ve started believing their own press releases, that’s a bad sign. We’ll all be watching to see what happens.