What American Airlines, US Airways merger means for the traveler

NEW YORK  -- While American Airlines and US Airways announced plans to merge Thursday, it will be several months -- if not years -- before passengers see any significant impact.

Passengers with existing tickets on American or US Airways -- and members of both frequent flier programs -- shouldn't fret. No changes will come anytime soon.

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American's parent company, AMR Corp., is still under bankruptcy protection and will need the court to approve the deal. US Airways shareholders will also have to vote for a merger. Then the Department of Transportation and the Justice Department must sign off. Finally, once a deal closes the new company could operate two separate airlines for a number of years.

When the airlines finally do merge, here's what passengers can expect:


In the past five years, the airline industry has seen the combinations of Delta with Northwest, United with Continental and Southwest Airlines Co. with AirTran. Further consolidation is likely to raise airfares. The price of a domestic round-trip flight has climbed more than 11 percent since 2009, when adjusted for inflation, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

The merger will give a combined American and US Airways Group Inc. the ability to increase fares. United, Delta and Southwest would be likely to follow. Although it could also pave the way for further expansion by discount airlines such as Spirit Airlines Inc. and Allegiant Travel Co.


Your miles will be safe. After the merge is approved, the two airlines will likely combine the miles into one program and elite status from one airline will likely be honored on the other. That puts the occasional traveler closer to rewards.

The merged carrier will continue American's participation in the OneWorld alliance, which was founded by American, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Today, it has 12 airlines including Finnair, Royal Jordanian and Japan Airlines. US Airways will leave the Star Alliance, which includes rival United Airlines, Lufthansa, Air Canada and 24 other airlines. Alliances allow passengers to earn and redeem miles on partner airlines.


A key reason for merging is to link both airlines' networks, creating a system on par with Delta Air Lines and United, part of United Continental Holdings Inc.

There is little overlap between the two airlines' existing routes. The combined carrier will offer more than 6,700 daily flights to 336 destinations in 56 countries, making it more attractive to companies seeking to fly employees around the globe with few connections.

US Airways passengers will gain access to American's international destinations, particularly London and Latin America. American's passengers will be able to better connect to smaller U.S. cities that US Airways serves.

The combined carrier will have considerable presence in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Charlotte, N.C., Miami, Chicago, Dallas, Phoenix and Los Angeles. It is unclear how many of those cities will keep their levels of service. In past mergers, airlines have promised not to close any hubs but have gone ahead and dramatically reduced service in once-key cities.


The merger of two airlines often means confusion and hassle for customers. Which terminal or ticket counter do they go to for check in? If there is a problem with a ticket, which company should they call? For a while, United and Continental were issuing two confirmation numbers for each ticket so either airline's staff could make changes. Problems with the integration of their frequent flier programs angered many loyal road warriors and computer glitches caused repeated flight delays. It could be months, if not years, until all American and US Airways planes get a uniform paint job.

"These things are never as seamless as they seem," said Thomas Lawton, a professor of business administration at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of business. "There will probably be some initial teething problems."


Close to a half-dozen American Airlines flights departed from the Tulsa International Airport to connection destinations like Chicago and Dallas Thursday. Among the passengers flying out was 30-year flyer Al Bolak, who was on a business trip to Frankfurt, Germany. 

Bolak, who takes off and lands nearly 120 times every year, is optimistic about what the merger might mean for Tulsa, which is home to an American maintenance base.

"We'd like to have a good, strong airline here in Tulsa. So if this is going to help them, I think it's a good idea," he said.

Some experts, like airfarewatchdog.com president George Hobica, said they could see customer costs drop as advertising, marketing and sales costs for American Airlines drop. Hobica said a fleet of fuel-efficient jets could also decrease costs for consumers.

Hobica said he expects customer service to be better than it was in years past, too.

"They've lost their pensions. They've lost some of their wages and give-backs and I think the airlines are profitable at last, we may see a happier experience all around," he said via Skype.

Hobica also said long delays and cancelations should be cut down with American's promise to maintain existing hubs and networks. 

"I think one of the biggest benefits of some of these mega-mergers is that if your flight's canceled or delayed, you'll be able to have many more opportunities to be rescheduled through another network or hub," he said.

Despite Hobica's optimism over dropped costs, Bolak, who said the every flight he's on is sold out, doesn't agree that tickets will be cheaper. He said he doesn't see any reason for the now-giant airline to decrease any of its prices if demand hasn't dropped.

"Hopefully if the economy is strong, then people can afford to still fly. That's kind of the hope," Bolak said.

Hobica said the mergers might not be done yet. He said smaller airlines like Alaskan, Frontier, Hawaiian and JetBlue could soon join the mix.

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