The Big US Airways Transition Disaster That Wasn’t

You don’t hear much about the women in high-ranking places in the domestic US airlines.  The battle for CEO supremacy over the years has been, for the most part a game of cowboys, not girls.  But, someone most of you have never met and some won’t know the name of deserves thanks and recognition for today.

In reality, there’s a big team of people who made today a relative non-event for American Airlines and US Airways.  Maya Liebman, the Chief Technology Officer of the largest airline in the US, is one of the more highly visible members of that team who pulled off the quietest win in airline history today.

If you think about it, today shouldn’t have been as anticipated as it was.  No doubt, airlines are very complicated beasts.  But, there are so many complicated businesses that have merged over the years without their businesses grinding to a halt.  It just wasn’t something the airlines had done well as of late.  The last time US Airways was involved in such an event (when America West acquired them) was a disaster.  United and Continental as well.  And yet, things were eerily normal today.

We had one of the most popular travel bloggers out there flying just to see if something would go wrong.

So, Maya’s team did the possible, and did it very well.  They spent the last couple of years developing a plan and executing on it in a methodical manner.  Today doesn’t end the integration, but it is a big signal that the most complicated customer-facing parts of the merger are behind us.

Where does that leave us?

Unanswered questions remain about what the AAdvantage program will look like.  Will they follow Delta and United down the rabbit hole to a revenue-based program?

There’s also a big unanswered question about which culture will ultimately win out.  US Airways, lead by Doug Parker made a habit of finding a way to squeeze pennies out of an operation, something they should be commended for.  But, they really did serve (for the most part) a different slice of the market than American Airlines did.  Now, they’re one and there are a whole slew of American customers (myself included) that expect a higher level of service than what US Airways and United currently offer.

I’ve had a run of flights recently on US Airways metal that used to be operated by American Airlines.  For the most part, while the crews were friendly, the service was decidedly not what I’ve come to expect from American Airlines.  I don’t think any group of flights one passenger experiences is a prediction of how the airline will move forward at this point, but it’s very clear there are still two cultures.

Those cultures aren’t fighting with each other for the most part because they’re still somewhat separate.  As Gary points out, the crews will continue to be mostly separate.  Until they begin operating together, I don’t know that we’ll really understand which culture will end up winning out.  There will be clues along the way as we see policy shifts and announcements for changes.

Many folks, myself included, thought that Doug and Scott would come in and have all of their hand-picked folks in positions of leadership.  And yet, Suzanne Rubin (an AA veteran) runs the AAdvantage program while Maya is an AA exec moved up to the CTO role as part of the merger.  I’ll be flying AA on Monday and I expect it to be smooth sailing.

Today is about Maya and hundreds of other folks I’ve never met taking a quiet victory lap before they ready for the next set of challenges.  I hope there’s champagne on Amon Carter Blvd this weekend.  And, a good night’s sleep.  They earned it.

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