How US Airways Became My Airline-of-Last-Resort (And Why You Should Never Fly With Them, Too)

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I will never fly U.S. Airways again, if I have a choice. A competing airline's ticket is going to have to be substantially more expensive for me to even consider U.S. Airways as an alternative.

This all started with a trip to Ithaca two months ago. There was a substantial weather system that move through the eastern seaboard area that screwed up traffic for a number of carriers. From my vantage point on the ground — watching the FAA's National Airspace System Status Summary as well as various flight tracking services — everything seemed to be on time for a flight from Syracuse through Washington-Regan to Columbus. Washington-Regan was spared the brunt of the storm and was not having to de-ice aircraft, as I recall. Other major airports had closed various runways and were reducing traffic with ground-stop programs, but as the afternoon wore on the system was improving. The only abnormality was an odd message on the National Airspace System Status Summary was a message that the Philadelphia airport was closed to U.S. Airways traffic at the request of the airline due to "lack of ramp space." The U.S. Airways website continued to show an on-time departure, so I figured the aircraft for my flight from Syracuse to Washington-Regan was coming from Washington-Regan or somewhere else that was not affected by the Philadelphia airline-requested ground stop. I headed to the Syracuse airport...

...where I found all hell had broken loose. In the 75 minutes it took me to drive from Ithaca to Syracuse, U.S. Airways canceled what looked to be all of their operations in the northeast. Based on past travel experience, I've found that it is often better to call the airline's central toll-free number rather than wait in a customer service line at the airport. Wrong choice. U.S. Airways' phone system had basically melted down. It took 23 dialing attempts just to get in the queue of people "waiting for the next available agent" and after 90 minutes on hold I hung up and got in line. The guy that got in line behind me said he held on the phone for five hours at his house before hanging up and driving to the airport, thinking that the service had to be better than that at the airport. Right?

Wrong. An hour and a half later plus two television reporters on a remote for the evening news talking about the long lines of customers in front of the U.S. Airways ticket counter at the Syracuse Airport, I finally got to the head of the line. The best the agent could offer was a flight 49 hours later. I asked about compensation based on the problems in Philadelphia. She said the problem was the FAA closing airports due to the weather. I told her about the message from the FAA's status page about the problem only affecting U.S. Airways flights in Philadelphia. She told me she knew nothing about it, but that if I wasn't on the flight 49 hours later that I could apply for a refund for the unused portion of the ticket.

So I rented a car and booked a hotel room for the night (neither of which U.S. Airways would pay for). After a good nights sleep I drove home and picked up my car from the airport parking lot 27 hours before any possibility that U.S. Airways could get me there.

In the middle of the following week, I submitted my request for a refund via some automated automated telephone system that no longer exists (800-363-2542 -- it now gets routed to the "customer relations system" at 866-523-5333, but more on that in a minute). A week later I called a separate number (480-693-6735, as documented on the U.S. Airways Ticket Refund website) and keyed my ticket number into the automated system; it wasn't found. So I faxed a copy of everything to the number suggested (800-892-3447). A week later I checked the automated system; nothing. So I sent a copy in the mail to the 4000 East Sky Harbor, Pheonix, AZ address. I just checked the automated system again; nothing.

So I've had it with the automated systems and I try to get someone on the line. I call the "Customer Relations" number (866-523-5333); option #2 is for ticket refunds and such. The recorded message tells me that to serve me better I should hang up and dial a 480-693-6735. Yes, if you're keeping track, we've seen that number before. It is the automated check-the-status-of-your-request number. The voice prompts don't give you a way to talk to a human, but after hitting enough garbage into the system you get routed to what the system claims to be is the queue of people waiting for the next available agent. I only spend 25 minutes on hold here before giving up -- it's my dime paying for the call, after all. Next I call the central number for U.S. Airways where an agent gives me all of the phone numbers I've already tried and says that is all she can do for me.

Here's the real kicker -- U.S. Airways is acting like it doesn't care what you think. As a last resort, I call the "Customer Relations" number once more and pick option #3 -- for a "complement or concern" -- and after a few rings I am offered an apology for not being "personally available to take your call now..." (no queue of people on this option). Boy, it is a good thing I didn't have a complement for the airline, right?

Now, I never expected it to be easy to get a refund for my ticket (it is, after all, money that they would want to keep for not doing any real work), but I do expect it to be possible. So, U.S. Airways, as your pilots say when we land, I do have an option in air carriers when I fly, and from now on I won't be choosing U.S. Airways.

Update (20070601T0956): The New York Times has an article about the overbooking practice by airlines, focusing on U.S. Airways. A part: "Overbooking is one of many airline practices that are complicated by crowded planes. Airlines are running closer to capacity than at any point during the jet age — an expected 85 percent or so full this summer, which means all the seats on popular routes will be taken."