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Despite major strides, US Airways still ranks high in passenger complaints

CHARLOTTE -- What more does it take to get some love from customers?

After a disastrous 2007, US Airways has outpaced its competitors in on-time arrivals, landing almost 80 percent of flights on time in the first six months of 2008 -- best among major U.S. airlines and No. 2 among all airlines.

Charlotte's dominant carrier also has made big strides with passengers' luggage, mishandling about 40 percent fewer bags than last year.

Despite those gains, US Airways remains one of the worst airlines for passenger complaints, according to federal transportation data released Tuesday.

Although the rate of complaints has dropped from 2007 -- when delays plagued the carrier early in the year -- US Airways narrowly avoided last place on the list of 19 airlines. The carrier ranked above only United Airlines for complaints per passengers in the first six months of 2008, data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show.

Doug Parker, US Airways' chairman and chief executive, said last week that some travelers still perceive US Airways as troubled by delays, despite its improvements.

Tim Winship, an editor for SmarterTravel.com, agreed, saying some travelers likely start trips with a negative impression of US Airways, giving the carrier no margin for error when something goes wrong.

"US Airways has had a bad reputation, on and off, for quite a few years now," Winship said. "It doesn't surprise me that consumers still would be more likely to rap them."

Parker also said some complaints this year came as US Airways adopted fees for services once covered by the ticket cost, such as checking bags and reserving certain seats.

"When we look at the data, complaints due to operations have declined dramatically, but we've had an increase in complaints about our policies," he said. "That's the choice we've made."

Statistics released Tuesday don't break out complaints related to fees. But they show that flight problems make up a smaller percentage of overall complaints this year, while gripes over reservations, ticketing and boarding -- as well as fares -- are a bigger chunk.

At the same time, on-time arrivals improved from 63 percent in the first half of last year -- worst among all carriers -- to 79.4 percent this year.

US Airways operates nearly 90 percent of daily passenger flights at the Charlotte airport, where the on-time arrival rate for the first half of this year was almost 77 percent, or fifth among 32 major U.S. airports.

In the same period last year, Charlotte's on-time arrival rate was about 66 percent, or 27th among airports.

US Airways also has seen its total complaints drop from last year, when the carrier generated more total complaints than any other airline -- including much larger ones -- in the first half of 2007. This year, its total complaints were fourth, behind American, Delta and United.

While the rate of complaints dropped from 3.16 per 100,000 passengers to 2.07, US Airways still trails almost every other carrier -- a distinction not lost on company leaders.

In touting the airline's performance in a note to employees Tuesday, chief operating officer Robert Isom wrote that with consumer complaints, "we're still in the bottom, and that's not where we want to be."

Isom echoed Parker on the perception issue and US Airways' embrace of "a la carte pricing," which has irritated customers. But Isom also said US Airways must react better to delays and cancellations, even if they happen less often.

"While we do have fewer travel disruptions than our competitors," he wrote, "our customers are telling us that we don't do as well as our competitors at recovering from disruptions that do occur."

The best remedy, Winship said, may be time. US Airways needs to stay at or near the top for on-time arrivals and mishandled bags long enough to erase bad memories among existing customers, he said, while attracting new customers who don't have a bias.

"Reputations are stickier on the downside than on the upside," Winship said. "Once you let it slip, it takes a long time to get it back."

It doesn't help, Winship said, that people rarely notice when an airline works as it should.

"When the good news comes around, it doesn't command the same level of attention," he said. "How boring is it that an airline does OK?"

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