The new American Airlines — the product of last year’s controversial merger between American and US Airways — may only be a few months old, but that hasn’t stopped travelers from forming opinions about the world’s largest airline.
The carrier, based in Dallas, has made some noteworthy changes since it settled a lawsuit with the Justice Department in December, clearing the new American for takeoff. Among them: revising some of its frequent-flier benefits, small but important changes to the way it sells flights, and new ticket policies.
“Significant benefits for customers are already being delivered,” says American spokesman John McDonald.
But passengers, virtually none of whom were asking for this merger, are skeptical. A survey conducted this month by a team of researchers from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that customers expect prices to rise and quality of service to fall after an airline merger like this one. “Much to our surprise, most types of mergers are viewed negatively by consumers,” says Kurt Carlson, director of the Georgetown Institute for Consumer Research.
It’s not difficult to find air travelers who are unhappy. Michael J. Fox, a retired high school teacher from Tucson, says that American is treating its customers worse now than before the merger. Fox recently received a notification that his American Express Platinum Card would no longer give him access to the Admiral’s Club lounge in Phoenix, nor any of the others in the American Airlines system. “This will affect many passengers in one big negative way,” he says.
Some customers were also disappointed when American eliminated bereavement fares, a move the airline claimed was necessary to bring it in line with US Airways’ policies. Bereavement fares are extended to passengers who have to attend a funeral and must fly at the last minute. Although American’s pre-merger bereavement fares weren’t known to be generous — offering only a 10 percent discount off the most expensive fare — they gave American brownie points in the customer-service category.
But not everyone is unhappy. Amanda Woodhead was pleasantly surprised when she checked in for a recent American flight and found that her US Airways benefits carried over, including a waiver of the fee for checked baggage. She has also seen more available flights when she visits the American Web site, which is the result of a so-called “code-sharing” arrangement. “It appears that the ticketing computer systems are aligning,” says Woodhead, a frequent flier who commutes from Washington to Nashville, where she works for a health-care company.
Experts say that it’s too soon to know whether this merger will be relatively smooth, like the one between Delta and Northwest, or problematic, like the last legacy airline merger, between Continental and United. Many challenges lie ahead as the two companies start to operate as one, including such internal challenges as workforce integration and moving to a common reservations system.
“Customer complaints will likely be the first indicator of how things are going,” says Robert Mittelstaedt, dean emeritus of the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, who is himself a frequent flier on American.