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Why the United-US Airways Breakup Is Good for Flyers

Yesterday's official announcement that merger talks between US Airways and United have been terminated is great news for anyone vested in the loyalty programs of either of those carriers.

If the merger had transpired, no matter which of the two airlines ended up with management control, there would be a lowest common denominator effect, with the worst practices of the least customer-friendly company dragging down the policies and procedures of the new company.

In this case, the lowest common denominator would be US Airways. And to be blunt, if the merger were a marriage, no caring parents would want their offspring hitched to US Airways.

US Airways is a company that never successfully made the transition to the current operating environment, in which the prevalence of low-cost carriers has forced mainline airlines to make difficult decisions about the relationship between customer benefits and ticket prices.

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Where most other airlines have found ways to balance the interests of all their stakeholders—customers, investors, employees, the community—US Airways has consistently given its customers' interests short shrift.

For years, the public face of the airline—at least as far as frequent flyers were concerned—was Ben Baldanza, who as US Airways' marketing chief was notorious for his cavalier lack of consideration for the needs of mileage program members.

Yes, that's the very same Ben Baldanza who now heads up Spirit Airlines, whose customers-be-damned approach was most recently epitomized by the announcements that it planned to charge for carry-ons and install non-reclining seats in its new jets.

While Baldanza is gone from US Airways, his legacy survives. I've long felt that his brand of ruthlessness has seeped into the very genetic makeup of US Airways.

Proof positive can be found in the airline's annual reports, where it is reported that in both 2008 and 2009, US Airways allocated just 4 percent of its seats to Dividend Miles members redeeming their miles. That's less than half the percentage of frequent flyer seats given away by United.

Meanwhile, the airline is giving away double miles on all flights, and offering a sign-up bonus for new members.

More miles. More program members. And possibly the industry's worst record of delivering on the promise of free flights. If ever there were a recipe for customer disappointment and frustration, this is it.

In US Airways' announcement, current chief Doug Parker continued extolling the supposed benefits of consolidation, even as he admitted that the United bid had failed.

My advice to other airlines: If US Airways comes knocking on your door, don't open it.

Reader Reality Check

US Airways customers, please weigh in with your comments, positive or negative. And if you're a United customer, would you have welcomed a tie-up with US Airways?

Read comments or add your own insight!
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