Cover Story: US Airways turnaround?

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The big airlines about to release their third quarter results and for once they're not in the red.

Charlotte's dominant airline, US Airways, is back in black.

U.S. carriers this week are expected to report biggest profit in three years.

But it's not just the airlines making money.  Local employees are getting a piece of the pie - albeit a small piece.  US Airways employees are on a bonus run.

They're finally shedding an image that they're tried to get rid of for years.  And the payoff is cash in their pockets.  Good for them and good for the local economy.

It's what they do.  Get people from point A to B.  Safely.  On time.  And with all their bags in hand.

But that's not always the way it's been for Charlotte's hometown airline - US Airways.  There have been times of frustration.

Remember the system wide failure three years ago when US Airways was converting its reservation system?  And there was the baggage meltdown in Philadelphia - Christmastime 2004.  Then it was called one of the worst messes in the history of the airline industry.

Those days are gone says fleet service agent Jay Barnhouse.

"We're doing our jobs," he says.  "That's what we do. We're starting to see a thank you with some money back. That shows we're doing our job."

Late Monday afternoon, at Charlotte Douglas International Airport they gave us an up close look at what they're talking about.

Each month, the U.S. Transportation Department - relying on data it receives and from the airlines - ranks the carriers in three categories:  Fewest Bags Mishandled. On-Time Arrival.  Fewest Customer Complaints.

And for the third time this year US Airways led the nation's big carriers in baggage mishandlings.  It's the fifth time this year the airline been tops in one of the three categories.

As a result the airline is handing out $50 cash bonuses to each of the airline's 31,000 employees, of whom 6,500 are in Charlotte.

"The guys like getting the bonus. What more incentive do you need than getting a little bonus in your check?" asks Fred Turner, a US Airways fleet service agent.

"We want this airline to make it. After coming off 9/11 we took a huge hit. We've all rebounded and got our lives back together," echoes co-worker Bart Hinson.

The airline been through two bankruptcies since the September 11th terror attacks.

Better management, employee dedication and technology improvements on the ground level, the workers say, have helped put US Airways on top.

Wall Street's responded.  US Airways' stock has doubled since the first of the year.

"It's a top performing airline," says Ted Reed, aviation and business reporter based in Charlotte with  "The whole industry is doing well. They've cut capacity. And there's continued demand from business. It's helping the entire industry."

"We were pretty widely known as an airline that suffered from a baggage problem. Now we've really turned it around," says airline spokeswoman Michelle Mohr.

One thing that's helped all the airlines - in the baggage mishandlings department - since they started charging to check a bag there are about 25% fewer bags on airplanes.  And that's also help speed up the process of getting out on time.

US Airways employees will be seeing the extra cash in their paychecks this week.

So how are the airlines making money now?  They've made cuts to the number of seats they fly allowing them to charge more for tickets.

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