AmericaWest: Flight Plan

By David F. Carr  |  Posted 2004-01-16 Print this article Print

Poor on-time performance was crippling America West. Then the airline dumped its failing hardware.

On Feb. 17, 2000, the America West Airlines flight-planning computer system collapsed. The airline was forced to cancel 128 flights that day and following morning, leaving thousands of passengers stranded.

Bob Ewers was headed to his Chicago home from a consulting assignment in Pomona, Calif., and had a ticket for an afternoon flight out of nearby Ontario International Airport. Instead, he found himself standing in lines for hours before being sent to a hotel for the night, then returning the next morning to stand in more lines.

"It put me back, oh, I guess about 30 hours or so," Ewers recalls now. Yet he had some sympathy for America West employees, having worked in maintenance operations for other airlines. "They had a major failure of the computer system, and there's not too much you can do when that happens," says Ewers, now an airplane-maintenance instructor at the Aviation Professional Education Center in West Chicago, Ill.

Others, though, swore off flying America West. "For you to cancel a lot of flights and be late all the time—that's the best way in the world to get rid of customers," says financial analyst Ray Neidl of New York-based Blaylock & Partners.

The February 2000 system meltdown started with a simple hardware failure—a burnt-out network card at the main flight-operations center—and mushroomed. It was an acute example of the technology failures contributing to America West's poor reputation for reliability at the time. Even when glitches didn't cause cancellations, the airline estimates they contributed to delays at the rate of 100 or more a month. Overall, the airline had one of the worst on-time performance records in the industry, ranking last among the major airlines in 1998 and 1999, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics.

While America West had reported record earnings in 1999, things went sour in 2000 on the financial front. Narrowing margins gave way to losses that started in the fourth quarter of 2000 and continued through the first quarter of 2003.

Even though its troubles began well before the trauma of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, America West's operations started to show signs of improvement in late 2001: It had the best on-time performance between December 2001 and February 2002, and again in May 2002. Today, America West's on-time performance is consistently above the industry average. One reason is the improved reliability of its supporting information systems, particularly those for the company's Strategic Operations Center—responsible for all flights nationwide—and its main hub in Phoenix.

Technology-related flight delays have dropped to about 25 or 30 per month, including relatively minor problems such as jammed printers, says chief information officer Joe Beery. He takes care to say that technology failures were never the top cause of delays, and that his department's improvements are part of a broader effort to improve operations. Still, Beery suggests America West ought to be able to take control of its systems and get that score for technology-related delays to zero. "We're not there yet, but we're getting there," he says.

So far, most progress has been achieved by eliminating the network infrastructure's weaknesses. "We essentially never have system crashes now, where we used to have them frequently," says Scott Kirby, the airline's executive vice president of sales and marketing.

America West's improvement in operations, whether due to better systems or more responsive employees, is paying off, says Michael Boyd, an airline-industry analyst with the Boyd Group. That's why America West is edging back into profitability at a time when most airlines are still suffering losses, he says. "If you're reliable, people will fly you again."

The results are now evident: America West earned $79.7 million in the second quarter and $32.9 million in the third. And while America West still expects to lose money for the full year, it forecasts a profit for 2004.

David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.

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