“Every on-time departure, every bag and every customer interaction really counts”

US Airways ranked number one in on-time performance, baggage handling and customer satisfaction among the major network carriers for May, according to the latest Transportation Department report — a rare trifecta. It’s even more impressive, considering that just a few years ago, the airline consistently ranked near the bottom of the list. I asked Kerry Hester, the airline’s vice president for reservations and customer service planning, to shed some light on the numbers, and what they mean to passengers. You can read a related interview about US Airways fixation on numbers with Robert Isom here.

How did you do it?

Our employees did it. I am very proud of my 31,000 colleagues who have worked hard to run a safe and reliable airline, while focusing on taking great care of our customers. They deserve the credit for achieving this important milestone.

OK. How did they do it?

This was a significant achievement for us that only a handful of other airlines have shared in the past decade. It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this point, but we’ve done it by institutionalizing a culture where our employees understand that every on-time departure, every bag and every customer interaction really counts.

We beat United in on-time performance by just a half percentage point, and bettered Continental by just 10 bags and eight complaints. Simply put, every contact that we have with our customers really makes a difference.

Leading the industry in on-time departures is the key to our success, and we do it without padding our schedule like some other airlines do. Our Express partners also contributed to these results, with record-setting performances in April in on-time departures, on-time arrivals, and completion factor (the percent of scheduled departures that actually departed during the daily schedule) followed by strong results in each of these measures again in May.

The one number that I find most interesting, as a customer advocate, is consumer complaints — just 53 for the month.

This is the first time since our 2005 merger that we ranked first in customer satisfaction.

Over the past couple of years we have emerged as a consistent leader in on-time and baggage handling performance; landing the lowest customer complaints ratio in May is a huge validation of the investments we started making in 2007 to permanently improve our reliability and efficiency.

Tell me a little bit more about how you — sorry, your employees — did it?

Technology is critical, and we have invested in several important tools to help us serve our customers better. These include bag scanners that now track more than 90 percent of our passengers’ bags, and customer relationship management tools that provide real time access to customer issues by the teams that need the information the most – whether that be customer relations, airport customer service or maintenance.

We’re responding to customer feedback quickly – typically within 24 hours, and we’re proactively communicating with our customers and offering apologies when we know we’ve had a service failure.

We’ve also initiated auditing programs that measure how well we’re doing at consistently delivering on our customers’ expectations for a convenient airport experience and a clean airplane with all amenities functioning properly.

There are numerous other examples of policy changes, inter-team coordination and new customer and employee technologies as well. But at the end of the day the key to our operational and customer service turnaround has been our employees’ focus on getting every one of our passengers to their destination on-time, with their bags, without any hassles – and when things do go wrong, working quickly to make things right.

How rare is it for a major carrier to pull off a trifecta?

It is an achievement that other large network carriers have only accomplished a dozen times over the past decade. While this is the first US Airways Triple Play since our 2005 merger, US Airways pulled off a trifecta in August 2002. But as rare as this achievement is, we don’t intend to wait another eight years for our next Triple Play.

Does this mean your customers are getting better service? Or are there other numbers that are a better indicator of the customer service experience?

We believe the three DOT measures (on-time arrival performance, baggage handling and customer complaints) are collectively a very good indicator of our customers’ experience. While there are many customer service awards and surveys out there which measure varying aspects of the air travel experience, our customers tell us that getting to their destination on-time, with their bags, and without hassle, is what matters most to them.

We posted strong year-over-year improvements in all three categories, so I would say, yes, our customers are getting better service. It’s also worthy to note that we are the only major network carrier that improved in all three categories during May, and we posted bigger improvements than our competitors in all categories. For complaints specifically, our customer service complaints (as coded by the DOT) dropped 34 percent year-over-year in May with the overall volume of complaints down 11 percent. Improvements of this magnitude are certainly being noticed by our customers, and we are continuing to strive to do even better.

I don’t hear anyone calling US Airways an ugly girl anymore, as one CEO for a rival airline did just after announcing a planned merger. What’s morale like at the company?

That’s funny. The past couple years have not been easy for most industries and the airline sector has been hit harder than many. Yet despite the backdrop of the worst recession in more than half a century, our 31,000 employees delivered one of the most impressive operational turnarounds in recent memory. After ranking at the bottom of the industry in all metrics in 2007, we finished first among the Big Five network carriers in on-time performance in 2008 and ranked second in 2009.

The start of 2010 was challenging due to extreme weather conditions on the East Coast which drove a significant number of flight delays and cancellations, but we’ve rebounded well in the second quarter. Those kinds of results speak volumes about our employees. And the news that all of our employees earned a $150 bonus for the May performance also brought a smile to many faces. In total, we’ve paid out $6.8 million in 2010 alone; and since the Triple Play program started after the 2005 merger, we’ve paid out more than $40 million.

Now that you’ve done this, what’s your next goal?

Well, before we move on to what’s next — and there’s plenty of work ahead of us — we’re going to take some time to celebrate. At the end of this month on the same day that most employees will receive their Triple Play bonus, employees across our system will celebrate with cake and ice cream parties.

Of course, we have no intention of standing still and we’ll continue to introduce new technologies and self-service tools for our customers and employees – all with the intent of continuing to improve our customers’ experience.

How about a little preview?

We recently launched BeNotified, a customizable way to get information from US Airways, added functionality to our website to allow some customers to complete their own ticket reissues, and expanded our Choice Seats program to allow customers to purchase select window and aisle seats located towards the front of the coach cabin at any point during or after booking a reservation.

In the not too distant future, customers will be able to check in for flights on their mobile devices and will no longer need a paper boarding pass. They’ll also have access to a new interactive voice response phone system to get what they need from US Airways more quickly and effectively, and they’ll continue to see new convenient features added to our website and airport kiosks. While we’re making all of these improvements, we’ll continue to deliver the excellent performance in core reliability measures that customers have come to expect from US Airways.

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