US Airways' woes a big challenge for new COO

Robert Isom refers to his two-year hiatus from the airline industry as payback time.

He went from airline executive with cushy travel benefits to full-fare-paying frequent flier, racking up tens of thousands of miles on Northwest Airlines and other airlines as he traveled weekly on business for financing giant GMAC.

Isom encountered his share of long lines, lost bags, dirty planes and gate agents who didn't know what to do with him when flights were delayed or canceled.

"When you're flying as an airline executive, it's a different product than I think the everyday customer sees," he said.

"I got to see the business at its best and at its worst. That experience is great."

Isom will need to call on that experience and his 15 years as an executive at Northwest and America West in his new job as chief operating officer of US Airways, a vacant position he was named to on Thursday.

The airline has been at or near the bottom of industry rankings in on-time performance, baggage handling and customer complaints for the past year, and frequent fliers say they are fed up.

Still sporting a visitor's badge, the trim, 43-year-old executive sat down for an interview with The Arizona Republic on his first day at the airline's headquarters to talk about his new role and his plans for the carrier.

Excerpts from that conversation follow:

Question:As a road warrior, what bugged you most about traveling on US Airways?

Answer:In terms of the overall experience, it was great at times and only OK or so-so or unacceptable at others. I think that lack of consistency is just something we need to address. You can't have one stellar month followed by two or three bad months.

People, especially the road warriors, are going to judge you on how well you do over an extended period of time. It's not just a snapshot. .. it's a film.

Q:You have mentioned how your US Airways flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix on Wednesday was flawless, with no long lines, courteous service, an on-time arrival and no problems with checked baggage. Neither city is one of the airline's trouble spots.

A:I don't mention that as a puff. The fact of the matter is I know of the issues within Philadelphia (US Airways' biggest hub by revenue) and the absolute necessity to have the hub airports and international operations run efficiently and reliably.

Q:What is your first priority at US Airways?

A:I think we have to spend some time defining, at a basic level, what it is we're trying to provide in terms of a customer travel experience. My first attempts will really be to prioritize on a handful of things that we have to be really good at. Certainly you have to be on time. You can't cancel flights. You've got to deliver bags. When things don't go right, you have to be good recovering from those irregular operations.

Q:How much time do you think you have to show that you're the right person to help turn the operation around?

A:It's going to be drinking from a fire hose. I think the key for me is going to be really identifying what those priorities are. It's going to be setting that strategy overall, making sure that we have the right alignment of our people and then relentless execution.

Q:Speaking of people, how big an obstacle or challenge to the turnaround is the state of labor relations at the airline and the fact that you can't combine the operations of America West and US Airways until there are single union contracts?

A:I have no chance for success without enthused and very engaged employees. I just don't.

So, at the end of the day, whether we're talking about management or a union or any other type of employee, we have to be engaged, we have to make sure that we address our issues in a fashion that allows us to provide that basic product.

To the extent we can get together and do that great, we'll be incredibly successful.

To the extent that we can't, we're going to have problems.

Q:Did that challenge run through your mind at all when you were considering the COO job?

A:It did. The experience I've had with the folks in the airport and some of the executives I've met suggest to me that everybody is really in it for the long run and ultimately to win and succeed in this business.

Q:Did you talk to workers in Philadelphia?

A:Philly's tough. I have been all over the world with Northwest.

I'm not going to say everybody has their Philly, but hub airport environments are very, very difficult and even more so when you're talking about an integration, about growth and about an expansion of international operations.

I'm not blind to the challenges but very, very much an optimist that at the end of the day it's in everybody's best interest to move forward. It has to happen.

Q:What excites you most about the job?

A:It's very exciting to come in and be able to help really change the operation for the better so that it's not something that's always an issue, but that is rather something that people say, "Hey, look it's an airline I want to fly," and our employees are saying, 'It's an airline I want to work for."

Off topic

Robert Isom on what he's going to do with the pile of Northwest Airlines miles he accumulated as a frequent flier the past two years: "Give them to relatives." (He wouldn't disclose his balance.)

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