Some of US Airways' biggest cockroaches invaded Philadelphia earlier this month.
These "cockroaches" are more than 500 of the airline's frequent fliers. They coined the term two years ago after a US Airways official referred to travelers who refuse to always pay top dollar but want the elite perks as pesky freeloaders.
They began to meet via cyberspace on the frequent flier Web site www.flyertalk.com and made up coffee mugs, lapel pins and luggage tags with a picture of a cockroach with the US Airways emblem on its back. They fly as much as 50 to 75 times a year on the Arlington-based airline. Many of them know the rules and regulations better than some of the airline's employees.
In December, cockroach Bob Johnson, a Mystic Island, N.J., sales trainer, contacted Christopher L. Chiames, US Airways senior vice president of corporate affairs. Johnson told Chiames that a group of the frequent fliers planned to meet in Philadelphia this month and asked offhandedly if he and some other US Airways executives would join them. Chiames accepted -- and arranged to bring nine other top executives with him. They included the heads of the customer service department, marketing and e-commerce.
So on a Saturday afternoon, about 60 of US Airways' most frequent fliers flew in from Washington, Los Angeles, Florida and other parts of the country for what was called Roachfest 2004, at a four-star restaurant at Lincoln Financial Field.
The executives came to hear about what the travelers think the airline can do better. The travelers came to hear about the future of their favorite airline -- or whether there's a future at all. But more important, they came to give suggestions about what the airline could and should do to survive.
"It could have very easily been a bitch session, but it wasn't," said Sol Brotman, a Jacksonville, Fla., dentist. "People came with problems and suggested solutions and we received significant information from US Airways about its future plans that were shared through good, frank discussions."
One of the biggest criticisms the travelers had was US Airways' antiquated Web site. These travelers prefer to purchase tickets online, but when they have difficulty navigating the site, get error messages whenever they hit the back space key or are unable to find available-seat maps, they leave frustrated.
The airline executives conceded that their site needs work and said they plan to unveil a new site next year. Chiames told the travelers that the airline stopped investing in the Web site four years ago because executives at that time believed US Airways was about to be acquired by United Airlines. But that plan was killed by the government in 2001, leaving US Airways to play catch-up on many things, including its Web site.
One of the bigger issues these travelers said the airline must figure out is how to give its best customers who purchase higher-priced tickets during the week, for work purposes, the ability to upgrade to first class on flights for which they happen to purchase a cheap ticket, such as on the weekend.
Another big gripe was the quality of limes served with drinks in first class. Many of the limes were either brown or withered, the travelers complained. So the roaches presented Chiames (pronounced "chimes") with a box of three dozen limes.
"I wonder what they would have done if my last name was Smith," Chiames said.
The executives described their survival plan for the airline, which includes reducing costs enough to where it could become more of a low-fare carrier.
And they broke one piece of good news: They no longer are contemplating elimination of first-class sections.
Chiames said some of the requests from the travelers just wouldn't work -- for example, replacing the plastic cups in first class with glass or crystal.
"God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no," he said. "We can't give the customers everything they want, but we have to look at what they want and build a better airline that's relevant to the customer."
The group met for nearly four hours, including breakout sessions. But even that wasn't long enough for Alexandria-based frequent flier Alysia Brown.
"It could have gone on for four more hours and we would have sat there," said Brown, an information technology specialist who has about 100,000 frequent flier miles with the carrier.
Despite the airline's financial troubles, these travelers said they have faith that the carrier is going to be around and they aren't planning to use up their miles.
"We wouldn't have showed up that Saturday afternoon if we thought the airline wouldn't exist in the next six months," Brown said.
These travelers said the airline's Go Fares initiative, new TV and newspaper advertising campaigns, and the plan announced yesterday to open a mini-hub in Fort Lauderdale prove that the carrier plans to be around for a while.
Frequent flier guru Randy Petersen, publisher of Inside Flyer magazine, is not as confident. He suggested that frequent fliers "save less miles and spend a little more" by booking flights on US Airways partner carriers such as United or another of the 16 or so airlines that make up the Star Alliance.
The cause for Petersen's concern, he said, is not that the airline could file for bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, a traveler's frequent flier points are still honored. His concern is that travelers could lose their points if US Airways is liquidated.
Still, the group was encouraged enough by what it heard that it voted to change its name after the meeting from Cockroaches to Ffocus -- short for Frequent Flyers Organized and Committed to US Airways Success.
Frequent flier Johnson said that when they got into financial trouble, US Airways and other airlines refused to listen to travelers and instead dictated how they would treat customers, what routes they would fly, what amenities they would offer and how they would price their tickets. But thanks to the Internet and the increased competitiveness of the industry, airlines found they had to listen to their best customers to survive.
"US Airways had the mind-set that the customer was the enemy. They were used to dictating, not listening to the customer," Johnson said. "But that weekend, to their credit, US Airways tried to listen to the people who actually fly the airplane."