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When the going gets tough, band together. US Airways and America West completed their merger late last year, pulling together two major airlines best known for low fares. But with mergers, the devil is in the execution. Combining two big businesses can lead to streamlined service, or organizational chaos. To see how things were going, we flew a round-trip on US Airways in January, keeping an eye out for signs of the new regime. We found that travelers will need to keep their eyes open, especially at airports.

First, the good news: this merger won¿t lead to lots of flight and route cuts. US Airways and America West didn¿t overlap much; US Airways was focused on the east coast, with hubs in Philadelphia and Charlotte, and America West had hubs in Phoenix and Las Vegas. America West flew several routes to Mexico; US Airways flew to Europe. They only overlapped at 38 airports out of 398, according to US Airways spokesman Carlo Bertolini.

But travelers are going to have to stay aware, because for now things are a little confusing in the air (and on the web.) For now, the two ¿airlines¿ still have separate websites, separate reservations phone numbers and appear separately on travel agency sites, with different routings and different fares appearing on USAirways.com and americawest.com. So you should treat the airlines as separate when you¿re buying tickets or subscribing to deals newsletters, and you should compare their prices against each other.

But America West flights also now show up on USAirways.com and under ¿US Airways¿ on travel agency sites, as flights ¿operated by America West.¿ US Airways¿ website also shows Star Alliance partners like United and Air Canada, making it the more flexible of the two sites.

Meanwhile, if you try to book a US Airways route on the America West site, you get an ¿under construction¿ message, and there are no United flights on americawest.com.

¿Under construction¿ is the theme at the airport and on planes, too. At Las Vegas airport, the US Airways and America West check-in desks were next to each other, and both were flying the same flag. Staff we quizzed knew about the merger and had no problem explaining how far things had gone.

But folks flying on US Airways-branded flights were shuffled to one line, and those on America West-branded flights were shuffled to another. The difference was marked by flight number, not by the website you bought your ticket through, so be aware of yours and keep your eyes peeled.

Fliers passing through Washington/Dulles, Newark and Chicago/O¿Hare should be aware that the two ticket counters aren¿t next to each other, so allow a little extra time in case you end up at the wrong one, and ask an airline employee before waiting on one of the lines.

If a flight gets cancelled or you want to change something at the airport, you must go to the counter for the airline operating the segment you want to change. So if you¿re on a US Airways flight from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas but coming back on an America West flight, and you want to change the second half, you must talk to America West. You also can¿t stand by for an America West flight with a US Airways ticket, or vice versa. But when our US Airways return flight was delayed, our US Airways gate agent immediately checked to see if there were America West flights he could put us on.

Yes, this is terribly confusing. It will go on until April 2007 at the latest, Bertolini said.

As the year goes on, you¿ll have to pay even more attention, because airport signage and even the planes themselves will all say ¿US Airways¿ -- but if you booked through americawest.com, you¿ll still be checking in on a different line than those USAirways.com folks.

On our outbound flight, the notices and videos didn¿t mention the merger at all. But on our return flight, they did. The two airlines¿ in-flight snack menus and entertainment choices are also still different, Bertolini said. Both airlines sell food on board; neither have personal video screens in coach class on domestic flights.

Many of the airlines¿ policies have merged, not necessarily for the better. The new airline has adopted America West¿s more restrictive policy on unaccompanied minors, who can no longer take connecting flights. US Airways¿ policy on being able to cancel a reservation within 24 hours of booking - the ¿changed my mind¿ policy - is also gone. We¿re most annoyed by the sugarcoated $25 standby fee. That gets you a confirmed seat on an earlier flight, which is nice; if they can¿t confirm a seat, they¿ll let you stand by for free. But you can¿t stand by for free, if there are seats available to confirm - the only seats you can get for free are from last-minute no-shows.

The two airlines will merge their frequent flier programs this year, but for now, things are a little confusing. You can combine US Airways and America West miles for awards, but if your primary membership is at America West, you can¿t get flights on the Star Alliance partners. Find more details at www.usairwaysinfo.com/usair/content/frequent-flyer/redeeming-miles.aspx.

In general, though, we think this merger will be good for travelers, and we¿re generally against airline mergers. US Airways was financially creaky, and the merger will shore them up; the lack of overlap between US Airways and America West means that travelers won¿t lose many options through the merger.

Whether the new US Airways will manage to be a successful low-cost carrier, though, is anyone¿s guess. Low-cost carriers don¿t just sell cheap tickets - they also run more uniform sets of planes, don¿t have older carriers¿ pension obligations and are more efficient at using their aircraft. For the new US Airways to succeed, they¿re going to need to remake themselves inside and out.

To keep track of the merger status, go to www.usairwaysinfo.com/usair/default.aspx.

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