The Lowdown on America West - TheStreet

Remember last year when

Northwest Airlines

(NWAC)

stranded hundreds of passengers in Detroit when planes couldn't get in or out -- leaving passengers sitting on aircraft for several hours in some cases? The running joke after that rather unfortunate episode was that Northwest should officially change its name to Northworst.

Well, we have a new candidate for the worst airline, at least when it comes to passenger service. America Worst ... er,

America West

(AWA)

.

Late last year, I

reported that America West was posting an extremely high level of flight cancellations. After yet another go-around with the

Federal Aviation Administration

in November, the airline had to pull a number of planes from its usual rotation, leaving it without enough aircraft to fulfill its schedule requirements.

This year, the cancellations are still very high, and passengers' dissatisfaction is hitting close to home. My brother, who used America West to commute from Colorado Springs to Phoenix, recently told me he finds the airline so unreliable -- because flights are cancelled so often -- that he now tries to fly on another carrier.

My fellow

TheStreet.com

columnist

Christopher Edmonds

got a dose of the America West cancellation syndrome last Wednesday morning as he tried to get from Las Vegas to Tucson, where he was scheduled to speak at an

industry conference. His America West flight to Phoenix and Tucson was cancelled. The next flight was cancelled as well.

Meanwhile, as the number of unhappy passengers mounted at the Las Vegas airport, so too did the number of America West crew members -- pilots and flight attendants -- attempting to get to Phoenix for their flight assignments.

Edmonds eventually got on a flight and found himself seated next to an America West Boeing 757 captain -- who also bemoaned the awful cancellation problem.

Then, at about 10,000 feet, the right engine let out a series of loud noises and the aircraft suddenly dipped to the right. Edmonds turned to the pilot sitting next to him, seeking expert advice. "Well, that's not good," he was told.

You know those how those pilots are. Understatement is their forte.

The plane immediately returned to Las Vegas and landed safely. Edmonds, relieved to be alive and on the ground, walked over to

Southwest Airlines

(LUV) - Get Report

and got a direct (and uneventful) flight to Tucson.

Edmonds says he'll never fly America West again. Do you blame him?

Even before the engine malfunction, the flight cancellations threatened to make Edmonds late for his speech. (However, our spies tell us that Chris did manage to use this pitiful story to his advantage. He finally did get to the conference, and we understand his harrowing tale produced many offers of liquid refreshment from those in attendance.)

More pity to those America West passengers trying to get out of Phoenix Thursday night. America West suffered yet another passenger-service black eye, as its scheduling computers apparently went bonkers. At least 70 flights out of Phoenix were cancelled, stranding more than 1,000 passengers at

Sky Harbor Airport

.

But even worse was the airline's silence. As far as we know, no America West official stepped out to explain the problem to passengers or the media, although stranded passengers did get $10 food coupons. Boy, I know that would have impressed me!

The airline finally issued a statement Friday morning blaming the problem on the computers and saying things hopefully would be back to normal by the afternoon. Too little, too late, I'd say.

Oh, and did we mention that, in addition to all those cancellations, the airline continues to post extremely poor on-time performance stats, as measured by the

Department of Transportation

. In fact, for 1999, America West posted the worst on-time performance of any major carrier.

Needless to say, if you plan on traveling on America West ... er, America Worst anytime soon -- Traveling with Wings recommends you pack lots of things to occupy your time while you wait for your flight. Or the next one. Or the one after that.

Then again, one Phoenix-based reader suggests the new America West A320 jets will have their clocks set back 90 minutes so passengers will think they've arrived on time.

On the Other Hand

And then there's Northwest, which I had some first-hand experience with on a recent trip to Anchorage.

As you may know, the flight attendants' union and the airline are locked in a very nasty labor negotiation. Yet, without exception, I found the flight attendants on every segment I flew to be friendly and helpful -- far from surly. Trust me, surliness is not uncommon when employees are locked in a rancorous labor dispute with an airline.

I had expected to pick up on some of that tension, but found none of it among the flight attendants along the route.

Did Northwest heed the wakeup call last year? Perhaps so. The carrier gets a gold star from this happy passenger.

Holly Hegeman, based in Barrington, Rhode Island, pilots the Wing Tips column for TheStreet.com. At time of publication, Hegeman held no positions in any securities mentioned in this column, although holdings can change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. You can usually find Hegeman, publisher of PlaneBusiness Banter, buzzing around her airline industry Web site at

www.planebusiness.com. While she cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, she welcomes your feedback at

hhegeman@planebusiness.com.