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How two airlines become one: American, US Airways ready to combine

Travelers bustle past the American Airlines counter on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, as the airline prepares its final steps to merge with US Airways.
Travelers bustle past the American Airlines counter on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, as the airline prepares its final steps to merge with US Airways. CMGuerrero@elNuevoHerald.com

It’s one thing to agree on a merger. It’s another to combine complex operations involving millions of consumers who are, literally, flying in different directions.

This weekend, American Airlines and US Airways will complete the final critical step in the 22-month process of becoming the world’s largest airline when their reservations systems become one.

For consumers across the airborne universe, that means no more confusion over which airline site to use, which app to download or which toll-free number to call. The name US Airways will disappear as both partners fly under the banner of American Airlines.

Passengers at Miami International Airport and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport will see few changes.

“No flights will be impacted in Florida,” said Martha Thomas, an American spokeswoman. American Airlines — MIA’s largest airline — has always had far more flights locally than US Airways, but across the total combined fleet, only about 4 percent of all bookings need to be migrated into the new system.

Still, American advises, passengers should check in online up to 24 hours before departure and arrive at the airport early, boarding pass and itinerary in hand.

At MIA, workers are scheduled to replace US Airways signs Friday evening with American signage. Exterior Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport signs also will be replaced Friday. US Airways gates will become American gates. At MIA, both airlines are located in D and E concourses. Because American and US Airways Miami baggage carousels are adjacent, no luggage snafus are anticipated.

Nationwide, American’s rebranding at 200 airports includes standardized, more openly designed airport lobbies, with sleek silver and light wood ticket counters.

At the US Airways hubs of Philadelphia, Charlotte and Phoenix, about 200 flights — or 11 percent of 6,700 flights fleetwide — are being removed from the regular schedule Saturday to ease the transition. Those cuts affect American, American Eagle, US Airways and US Airways Express flights but do not impact Miami or Fort Lauderdale, Thomas said.

The two carriers announced the merger in February 2013 and formally closed the deal at the end of that year, closing out the 2011 Chapter 11 bankruptcy of American Airlines parent AMR Corp.

END OF US AIRWAYS

The last leg of historic US Airways flight 1939, which began 76 years ago as a tiny mail service, will leave San Francisco at 9:55 p.m. Friday, landing in Philadelphia at 6:18 a.m. Saturday. By midnight Saturday, US Airways’ website will go dark. Visitors will be automatically redirected to the American site at www.aa.com.

“We have really tested the heck out of everything,” said Maya Liebman, American’s chief information officer.

Since the merger process began in February 2013, American has added 1,500 reservation agents and 600 new airport agents. It installed 1,300 new computer kiosks and spent 1 million hours training more than 50,000 employees. Cost: undisclosed.

To ease the transition, American also is staffing 24-hour command centers — a main post and 23 satellites —with 1,000 employees through Oct. 27. The airline began emailing customers Wednesday about changes.

FINAL MILESTONE

Combining the reservations system is the third and final milestone in merging the two companies. In March, the frequent flier programs were joined. In April, the two lines began flying under a single government operating certificate.

“Our No. 1 goal is to make sure customers have as seamless experience as possible,” said Kerry Philipovitch, American’s senior vice president of customer experience.

On the technical side, American moved US Airways reservations into the back-end system, operated by SABRE, and built an overlay, similar to the one used by former US Airways agents.

“This is one of the most difficult things airlines can do,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, a trade publication.

Several top executives overseeing the reservations integration had the advantage of experience gleaned from the 2005 merger of a bankrupt US Airways and American West. Kaplan described that integration as “a mess.” This time, “they seem to be taking extraordinary steps to make it go as smoothly as possible.”

After Saturday’s moves, the final steps will be repainting livery on US Airways planes and unveiling of newly designed employee uniforms next year. All livery repainting may not be finished until 2017. An operational staffing system also has yet to be completed.

MINIMAL LOCAL IMPACT

The full merger could “benefit a lot of smaller airports in the East by opening new access,” said airline consultant Mike Boyd, head of Boyd Group International. But as for Miami and Fort Lauderdale, he said, consumers shouldn’t expect changes. “US Airways was a minor player.”

Miami is American’s busiest international gateway, with 26.4 million passengers in 2014 and 340 daily flights to 129 destinations in 42 countries; at Fort Lauderdale, American operates only 25 daily departures. US Airways operates 21 daily departures in Fort Lauderdale and only nine in Miami. American is Miami-Dade County’s third-largest private employer.

Through Oct. 5, this year American transported a total 22.4 million passengers to and from MIA, compared to more than 21.3 million passengers during the same period in 2014.

Miami is American’s fifth-busiest domestic hub — behind No. 1 Dallas-Fort Worth, Charlotte, Chicago and Philadelphia.

SPORADIC GLITCHES

The reservations integration began in earnest in July, when American launched a three-month “drain down” period as it slowly moved data over from US Airways to avoid glitches.

Still, some passengers experienced some difficulties. Miami attorney Rachel Klein, a frequent American business traveler, faced tedious airport waits in Houston in mid-August and Indianapolis in mid-July. Klein went to American help counters, also marked with US Airways identifiers, at both airports. She was sent to different counters, to wait in line a second time. It was, she said, “very frustrating.”

Travel agent Jim Eraso of Key Biscayne’s Jim Eraso Travel Inc. described sporadic glitches as “nothing major. Of course, there were hiccups. But everything, from my perspective as an agent and as a client, has gone very well.”

So, if all goes well for American, will fliers really care much about these behind-the-scene details?

“It doesn’t matter all that much unless there are severe glitches,” said consumer advocate Ed Perkins, a SmarterTravel.com contributing editor.

Though American has prepared carefully, Perkins said, “software glitches would be unpredictable.”

This weekend, travelers should still make old school preparations before flying.

“This is the weekend to have your paper printouts,” Kaplan said.

By the numbers

Miami International Airport

American gates: 55.

US Airways gates: 3.

American Airlines employees: 11,600 +.

US Airways employees: 125.

Fort Lauderdale International Airport

US Airways gates: 4.

American gates: 2.

US Airways employees: 193.

American employees: 37.

Source: American Airlines

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