News Article - August 03, 2008

By Linda Loyd

Inquirer Staff Writer

  Two years ago, getting a checked bag from a US Airways flight in Philadelphia was a nightmare. Passengers routinely waited an hour or more at baggage claim. Last summer, lines of international passengers from Europe and the Caribbean with bags to be rechecked to connecting flights snaked back into the U.S. Customs area, causing gridlock, missed flights and flared tempers. Today, US Airways is solidly on its way to fixing the mess.

   The 45- to 60-minute wait at baggage claim at Philadelphia International Airport has been cut to 25 minutes or less from the time a plane hits the gate. After years of complaints about delayed, lost or damaged bags, the airline cut in half its mishandled-bag reports in Philadelphia for the three months ended June 30 - 19 bags per 1,000 passengers, compared with 39 a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Nationwide, its baggage handling improved to above average from below average. Passengers picking up luggage last week said the bags arrived on carousels much faster than they used to.

   "This was the quickest I've seen it," said Carmen Ferullo of Philadelphia, arriving on a 7:10 p.m. flight from Buffalo. "It took me six minutes to walk here. The bag was on the belt. Most of the time it's a 15- to 20-minute delay from when the plane lands." Jeff Gordon and his wife, Cindy, of Southampton, Bucks County, flew home from Los Angeles and waited 10 minutes. "This was definitely much improved," said Gordon, who flies 25,000 miles a year on US Airways. "In the past I've waited two hours, or they lost my luggage coming back just from a simple flight from Boston. This is a very favorable experience. I've seen improvement." City Director of Aviation Charles J. Isdell said he didn't get angry letters or e-mails about baggage anymore. "That used to be a pretty regular part of my life."

   The Inquirer in October 2006 detailed US Airways' chronic baggage problems in an article showing that demoralized workers, decrepit equipment, and revolving-door management had crippled the baggage-handling system. It was no small concern for either US Airways or the region. The airline carries two-thirds of passengers at the airport, which is one of the airline's largest hubs. After the report, US Airways spent more than $20 million on everything from new baggage equipment to more airport service workers and managers.

   And it began to attack the other part of the mishandled-baggage problem: chronic delays in flight departures and arrivals. When flights don't leave or arrive on time, luggage often gets lost or waylaid between planes. In September, the airline brought in a new chief operating officer, Robert Isom, a Northwest Airlines veteran and most recently chief restructuring officer at GMAC L.L.C., to turn around the worst on-time-performance record among major airlines. So far, it's working: US Airways went from worst among the seven largest U.S. carriers in on-time performance in the first six months of last year to best this year, federal data show.

   Isom hired Bob Ciminelli, who had run American's operations at New York's LaGuardia Airport, to be US Airways' vice president of operations at Philadelphia International. He is responsible for getting 23,000 bags on and off planes each day and making sure the 451 departures leave on time from 87 gates. Gentle-mannered and quiet-spoken, Ciminelli is employing strategies that worked at LaGuardia.

   "I don't profess to be a miracle worker, but I hold people accountable," Ciminelli said in his airport office. "What was lacking here was accountability, direction. People needed to know, 'Where do you want us to go?' They needed someone to lead the way." To reduce the international-baggage backlog, US Airways asked British Airways to swap ticket counters, which gave US Airways more behind-the-scenes bag-recheck capability. British Airways has two daily international flights; US Airways has 34. US Airways worked with the airport to build a new baggage-screening area in the international terminal, with four additional screening machines for rechecking bags. More than half of US Airways' returning international passengers recheck bags to connecting flights. US Airways in the fall will build a $6.5 million conveyor-belt "bridge" from International Arrivals in Terminal A-West to the new bag-screening machines in Terminal A-East.

   One of Ciminelli's first moves was to change baggage handling so that suitcases for connecting flights are transferred by runners directly, instead of being mixed with local bags and cargo. The runners' only job is to meet flights and take bags to connecting planes. A separate team of ground workers takes local bags, cargo and mail.

   In addition, 30 ramp-information display screens have been installed at a cost of $2.2 million at gates outside Terminals B and C for baggage handlers and ramp workers to have more accurate information about an airplane's destination and departure time. The electronic display boards have countdown clocks so ground workers know how much time they have to load a flight. Ciminelli said those two things - changing how handlers move luggage and installing ramp information - were the "main reason" for reduced domestic-luggage complaints. It probably didn't hurt that the airline also began rewarding employees with cash when it gets good performance marks or even customer praise.

   Ciminelli and another recent hire in Philadelphia, senior vice president Suzanne Boda, have latitude to make financial, hiring and operational decisions without getting prior approval from headquarters in Tempe, Ariz. Boda oversees international, cargo and East Coast operations. After he took office in January, Mayor Nutter told top US Airways officials he wanted to see improvement in the airline's performance and, in particular, a better summer operation "because that's when we have had service problems in the past," Isdell said. Since that meeting, Ciminelli and his team have met every Friday with city aviation officials and Transportation Security Administration, Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection representatives to talk about summer plans. "We've been able to work through a lot of issues," Ciminelli said.

   His strategy for getting planes out on time is to focus on the "first bank" of 20 to 25 morning flights between 6 and 9 a.m. The premise: If the first flights depart on time, the rest should fall in place. At noon Monday to Friday, he meets with his directors, aircraft-maintenance personnel, and representatives of the flight attendants, pilots, vendors, and people who fuel and clean the aircraft - "anyone who could impact our departure," Ciminelli said.

   "We review any delay. We tear it apart - what happened," Ciminelli said. "I'm not there to beat anybody up. The intent is to understand what happened, and what we could have done to avoid or minimize it." He credits the noon meetings with a "dramatic improvement" in on-time departures of morning flights. The group also talks about the prior day's international flights. On Mondays, they talk about the Saturday and Sunday flights. US Airways' managers spot-check baggage arrivals, do safety and performance checks of ground workers on the ramp, and monitor the 20 to 25 early-morning flights.

   "If the manager's flight incurs a delay, he or she is asked to come to the noon meeting to share what happened," Ciminelli said. "A little accountability and direction, you put all that into the formula. It's working." US Airways added 200 baggage handlers last year, raising the total to 1,250. It tripled the number of managers overseeing airport service from 30 to 90.

   The airline bought new ground service equipment - tractors, tugs and carts. There's new sorting equipment for bags that are checked at ticket counters, and new software that reads bar codes on baggage tags so they are dumped on a conveyor belt to the proper flights. In the fall, the airline also began offering financial incentives to employees. US Airways gives $50 to each of its 35,600 employees every month the airline finishes in the top three among the largest airlines in on-time performance, baggage handling or customer complaints, based on Department of Transportation data.

   The airline also rewards employees who get compliments from customers or managers, and holds drawings each quarter to give away $265,000 in cash, including ten $10,000 checks and other $1,000 and $250 awards. "We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go," said Ciminelli, noting that while Philadelphia had 17 mishandled bags in July per 1,000 passengers, LaGuardia and Phoenix had six bag complaints each. Indeed, there are still bag snafus. Jackie Baldwin of Villas, N.J., flew on US Airways to Washington's Reagan National Airport last Sunday. Her checked bag never made it.

   "I still have no idea where my bag is," she said Tuesday, upon returning to Philadelphia with a borrowed suitcase. "It's funny now, but it wasn't at the time." Baldwin planned to file a lost-bag claim with customer services.

Source - Philadelphia Inquirer