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Big American-US merger announces first 'customer benefits'

Ed Perkins

Ed Perkins on Travel

January 14, 2014

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Well, you could call at least some of the changes "benefits." But the departure of US Airways from the Star Alliance leaves a big gap for some transatlantic travelers that remains at least temporarily unfilled.

First, the actual benefits. Although both lines will operate separately for some time, a few changes go into effect immediately:

-- Mutual frequent flyer earning and award travel.

-- Reciprocal elite status benefits.

-- Reciprocal lounge club access.

-- "Alignment" of check-in procedures, including online check-in 24 hours in advance for domestic flights and 48 hours for international flights.

-- Joint ticket counters and check-in gates at New York/JFK.

But not everybody would class another alignment of procedures as a "benefit." US Airways will adopt American's policy of not providing early boarding for families with small children. You'd not be out of line to suspect that many such future "alignments" will adopt the worse of the two lines' procedures.

But for now, however, the big problem will arise on international flights. As of March 30, 2014 US Airways will officially withdraw from the Star Alliance (with United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa, SAS and Singapore, among others) and on March 31, 2014 it will join the Oneworld Alliance (with American, British Airways, JAL, Qantas, and others). The extensive US Airways code-sharing agreement with Lufthansa expires on March 30, and for flights even before then, Lufthansa is apparently cutting way back on low-priced seats it offers as US Airways code-shares. US Airways is still quoting through fares that combine its own flights to Europe with local connections on Lufthansa for travel in April, but I couldn't find any connections involving Lufthansa flights from its U.S. gateways to Frankfurt or Munich and onward from there.

Where American doesn't fly its own planes to Europe, on the other hand, it primarily lists connections through London/Heathrow to the many cities British Airways serves. But that's a hassle, because unlike the case of Munich or Frankfurt, at American, British Airways, and US Airways operate from three different Heathrow terminals. And that means travelers connecting from American or US Airways flights to British Airways have to leave security, take a shuttle to a different terminal, and go through the security hassle again.

Reliance on British Airways for onward European connections is especially hard on travelers who use frequent flyer miles for award travel. Alone among European airlines, British Airways adds a hefty "airline imposed fee," formerly described as a fuel surcharge, to supposedly "free" award travel with American miles. Travelers trying to fly to Europe with vouchers issued by US Airways will also face considerable difficulty in booking flights to cities that neither American nor US Airways serves directly.

The "benefits" press release indicates that the two liens will roll out more code-share deals "in coming months," along with gradual combination of ticket counters and gates at jointly served airports. That will happen "soon" at Miami and Phoenix, but each major airport posts its own logistical problems and space constraints. Don't hold your breath until the merger is truly "seamless."

All in all, the biggest loss for US Airways flyers is probably the end of its alliance with Lufthansa, with hubs at Frankfurt and especially at Munich that are much more user-friendly to connecting passengers than London/Heathrow. To other regions, flyers won't lose as much, because Oneworld is strong to Asia and the South Pacific, and American serves much of the Caribbean South America through its Miami and Dallas-Ft. Worth hubs.

All in all, most other consumer advocates for air travelers joined me in opposing the merger on anticompetitive grounds. And now that the first "benefits" are announced, I haven't seen anything to change my mind. But, obviously, none of the big players paid much heed to our objections. My main ongoing worry is that one or more of the remaining big three legacy lines will try to take over the more successful independents -- especially Alaska, Hawaiian, or JetBlue -- going as far as hostile takeover moves.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

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