How US Air Outsmarted The Competition With A Simple Name Change

US Airways took over American Airlines a decade ago and kept the American name, just as America West kept the larger airline’s name when it took over US Airways. The US Airways brand went away in 2015.

The carrier US Airways was itself an amalgamation of airlines. When I was much younger I knew the name as an acronym: USAirways Still Allegheny In Reality, Why Alter Your Signs?

I simply assumed that the ‘US’ name was chosen to give the carrier a more national brand. But it may have had a much more practical explanation, according to a story that long-time airline CEO Ed Colodny would tell new hires when they onboarded.

  • His main interest in the airline’s name change was the phone book.

  • Allegheny was the first airline listed in the yellow pages. People would shop for ticket prices by going to the phone book and calling airlines, calling Allegheny first and calling United Airlines last.

  • When they would reach United, which would have a price similar to others they’d called, they’d be on the phone anyway and ask to make the purchase rather than starting over and dialing another carrier.


Credit: Hunter Desportes via Wikimedia Commons

This change was made in 1979, right after airline deregulation when airlines began setting their own prices rather than prices being set by the Civil Aeronautics Board. Changing Allegheny to US Air meant they were last in the Yellow Pages. Customers would call them last and buy their ticket.

What this speaks to is that customers would behave differently with airlines than most businesses, who wanted to be first in the phone book which would provide an advantage – first call would get the service. But people shopped fares, and this is prior to the internet, and of course it only applied to those buying directly and not through travel agencies.

The airline was US Air before US Airways. Allegheny traces its original to the All American Aviation Company founded by the du Pont family. It became US Air in October 1979. Colodny was President and CEO from 1975 to 1991.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Sounds like the CEO paid attention when getting his or her MBA… or had the ability to ‘critically think” whatever that means.. kinda cool in my book!

  2. This is an example of why Wikipedia is terrible. Wikipedia is partly ok but partly controlled by anonymous young boys who vote for each other as administrators, stop writing and start harassing people, as well as put in false information.

    This story is folklore but only partly true. USAir changed its name from Allegheny upon expansion to the west of Pittsburgh with new flights to PHX from CLE and PIT. Surveys showed that popular airlines included AA, UA, and a fictional name US Air, so Colodny picked it. If Colodny really wanted to be last, how about Western Airlines?

  3. Agony Airlines is still Agony Airlines even if they sport another name (lipstick on a pig). My brother, who was the first to fly in our family, flew them to college to start his first year in 1975. Getting above the rain clouds wasn’t their thing, so he had a miserable several flights. I think he puked at least once.

  4. I was fortunate to meet Mr Colodny on the occasion of the last US Airways flight. In our chatting we discussed where I worked, and that I had formerly been at AirTran. He knew several ex-US folks who had worked there including my boss, and asked who else I knew ex-US. I mentioned a fellow department head who had been a station manager at USAir for many years. Mr Colodny knew the name immediately and asked how he was doing, and his wife by name. I told him that this friend unfortunately had cancer and prognosis was not great.

    About a month later, I got a message from my friend who thanked me. Apparently Mr Colodny called him on the phone and they spoke for about two hours. It was a very positive thing for him, and showed caring and loyalty.

  5. Some of my earliest flights were on Mohawk Airlines, which was absorbed by Allegheny in the early 1970s. By flying on Mohawk I can add the Convair 440 and BAC 1-11 to the list of planes I’ve traveled on. There must be something about flying in that area of the country which leads to humorous renaming of airlines: Allegheny was referred to as Agony, while Mohawk was always Slow-hawk.

  6. Western Airlines was already in the telephone book. It also flew from the new US Air cities of Phoenix and Tucson. Later, there was Vanguard and Western Pacific, both coming after US Air in the telephone book. Other names beyond US Air could have been Venus, Victor, Victory, Vulcan, Viceroy, Western Eastern, Western Atlantic, Westchester, Winner, Washington, Yankee, Zip Air, Zip Air USA, Zip Air Japan, Zimmer, ZSA, etc.

    I believe the US Air name was actually chosen then the story made up to sound nice. That story conflicts with news reports that US Air was chosen because surveys showed it to be popular airline name when surveys were done with real airline names and a few fictitious names among the choices.

    Wikipedia has some information with a fake reference added, which is a dead link or a link that never existed. Wikipedia is wacky. Gary Leff is not. His column is actually very good.

  7. The renaming of companies can have a story that is more complicated than what becomes the prevailing narrative about a renaming, but around the time of this one there was definitely a lot of consideration for how things would play out with customers who phone in and shop around by phone.

    Interstate toll free direct dial had already become popular well before 1979, as it had already been around for over a decade at that point. Having easy to remember and dial toll free numbers was at least as important as being first or last alphabetically in a “business” listing category in the printed phone books. Also, Allegheny as a region was not as well known as US, so aiming to appeal more broadly with a population that may have had a quarter of high school kids claiming Moscow was the capital of the US, safer to go with US than with Allegheny.

  8. @jsm

    Before it became Texas International, Trans Texas Airlines was know in the south as TreeTop airlines.

  9. USAir was one of the worst airlines in the US, with a really poor safety record and one that squandered so many opportunities it inherited by acquiring value airlines and running their operations into the ground, from Piedmont to PSA. Awful airline.

  10. Allegheny was only one of the regional names airlines have. Of course Delta is the biggest airline with a regional name followed by Southwest. Alaska Airlines also has a regional name.

  11. Western and Northwest ended up becoming part of Delta. Eastern Air had some kind of split between American and Delta. Some of the lifetime miles in DL’s program came more or less from Eastern somehow, but not sure about how that happened.

  12. In 1969 or 1970 I flew from Milwaukee to Buffalo on a DC 3. That was a very noisy plane. The worst and most uncomfortable ride I have ever had was on an early 737 Peking to San Francisco. The seats were old and lacking any cushioning. I ended up standing up with the Stews in the rear for some relief. I should have complained more and received at least a partial refund.

  13. I am pretty sure that Delta only bought aircraft assets from Eastern and predominantly L1011s.

    Many companies including airlines buy the name rights as part of mergers and that is what Delta did with both Western and Northwest, both of which were full mergers and not asset acquisitions as Pan Am was. Eastern and Pan Am have both been used in US aviation since both of the original airlines by those names disappeared.

    Unless the time period of exclusivity runs out, and that may never take place based on how protective Delta has been w/ the names of its acquired companies, the names Western and Northwest as airlines may never return to use in the US and that may be true in other countries as well.

    USAir and later Airways is simply a less regional name than Allegheny (hard to spell as well) or Piedmont was.

    It is equally as significant in airline names that Alaska has held on to its name while Hawaiian at least predominantly operates from its namesake location.

  14. I recall something about Eastern’s routes — not the planes — having some sort of split between who ran with them after Eastern got liquidated. Some Eastern routes went to Delta while a bunch of others went with American IIRC.

  15. Years ago I shared a ride to PHL with some US Airways flight attendants. They were calling it Useless Airways.

  16. The carrier that is most misnamed today is Southwest which started life as a Texas intrastate carrier.

  17. Eastern sold its Latin America network to American Airlines in 1989. Many of Eastern’s planes were sold to Continental before Eastern liquidated, including many A300s. The L1011s went to Delta, mostly, as I recall.

    USAir and later USAirways never really grew to become the national coast-to-coast airline it always wanted to be, post-deregulation when Allegheny became USAir. It acquired Piedmont and PSA and within a few years of integrating PSA’s West Coast operation, it dramatically pared it back, including a short-lived “California Shuttle” between LAX and SFO. USAirways nearly went into Chapter 7 in 2004, saved by America West, which essentially took over the management of USAirways with the 2005 merger. Even with the HP integration, US was essentially an East Coast airline with a PHX hub and a fairly small LAS focus city. It never quite shed its reputation for indifferent service and had multiple, fatal accidents in the 1990s including one at LAX, another at CLT, LGA, and PIT.

  18. The story of the ‘USAir’ to ‘US Airways’ continued with the drama and slights sometimes apparent in the airline industry. At the time of the name change, I was in Sales for British Airways based in Charlotte, NC. As legend has it, BA left USAir at the alter as their domestic codeshare partner and moved to court American Airlines and what would soon be known as
    Oneworld alliance. USAir feeling dumped, changed their name to US Airways and remade their livery closer to BA colors. Charlotte soon had 2 ‘Airways’ serving the T/A market.

  19. @Derek is spot on – part folklore, part truth.

    I can’t speak to the accuracy of quotes attributed to Mr. Colodny. Then again, Allegheny once employed advertising that stated that, “We (Allegheny) Serve More of America Than American.”

    I can speak partly to the accuracy of Colodny’s observation. During my time at United, the Reservations/Sales division observed an inordinate number of “shopper calls” that became requests to book OAs’ (other airlines) on competitive routes. Even for (potential) reservations where a UA segment comprised a portion of the itinerary, UA reservations agents were “encouraged” to direct the caller to the OA for that portion of the booking.

    Having the caller make a separate call was somewhat rooted in the practicalities of the times – namely, the bifurcation of reservation systems (depending on tech capabilities, airline agreements, etc.). But, the main objectives were agent productivity, online (read: native carrier) revenue production, and cost containment (since carriers paid the res system hosts by the keystroke).

    Those three objectives wouldn’t have been lost on Colodny.

    @Harry – “I miss Tom Horton.”

    I certainly regret not seeing what could’ve been under Tom Horton.

  20. Some comments about USAir lack context (the accidents were unrelated & not a function of mismanagement) and who really saved who is always amusing when considering mergers. I was an original Piedmont pilot and saw it all from the inside all the way through the AA merger. The absolute best management team I ever saw came via Mr. William Howard (Piedmont President) & Mr. Gordon Bethune (Piedmont SVP/Ops). I use Mr, because they deserve that respect. I met both (Howard at Piedmont pilot indoc & Bethune at a CLT union meeting) and will always hold them in the highest regard…which coming from a line pilot speaks volumes. The sale by the railroad of Piedmont to USAir changed the trajectory of my career forever.

  21. The lore I heard was that the Allegheny to USAir transition was that the moniker was too regional. Years later the change to Airways was part of the Stephen Wolf “paint it grey” regime. He though USAir implied a bare bones LCC product while Airways was more grandiose and fitting for British Airways west Atlantic partner (lots of irony here).

  22. GU,
    Eastern failed under the domestic deregulated era and, other than the Latin America routes which Eastern sold to AA before EA’s bankruptcy as a result of the first Gulf War, DL simply took over large amounts of market share esp. in the eastern US and gate space in ATL that became ‘available” with EA’s demise.
    Pan Am also failed during the first Gulf War but had already started selling off parts of itself, starting w/ the Pacific division to UA in 1986 or so, then LHR routes also to UA during the Gulf War and then ultimately the NE and continental Europe operations to DL which took a stake in the reorganized PA which was just Latin America which failed within weeks. UA bid on PA’s Latin assets but failed to develop a hub against AA which had a decent head start.

    US did serve way more cities than other airlines but they were the least nationwide of the remaining six legacy carriers before the megamerger wave started w/ DL/NW and then UA/CO. Doug Parker proclaimed that the AA/US merger would turn AA into a global competitor to DL and UA but that has still not been realized.

  23. Thanks, Gary for kindling old memories.. Great musings all you guys! Brings back fond remembrances (Sigh) of flying Agony Airlines, Eastern, and another doozy, North Central Airlines. One could literally feel every bump in the sky flying those pedal jumpers. I will never ever forget the Old multi-colored Braniff Airline and the day they declared bankruptcy. I was on a flight from DFW to La Guardia and the pilot announced on the PA system mid-air that he was informed that the company had folded. We arrived in NYC and there were no bag handlers. What a bummer! Subsequently, they were reconstituted and started operations out of Dallas Love and offered literally white glove service with hot meals on white china and silverware, ice cream, and free red wine and all. Yup. that did not last too long. There was another Airline, Muse Air in the early 80s, that tried to compete with Southwest out of Dallas Love. Their claim to fame – no smoking on board, free Wall Street Journal, leather seats, and if my memory serves me right, 2 seats on either side of the aisle. As with all start-ups they folded like a cheap umbrella. Rounding out the fairy tale was the rattle trap called Air Trans. Gosh, enough said!!

  24. It was an absolute joy working for Allegheny Airlines, USAir and USAIRWAYS for 34 years and the employees at ALB,BUF AND RDU were awesome! TRULY loved getting up everyday to go to work..And I Thank America West for saving US.

  25. SA,

    The branding change from USAir to USAirways happened under Stephen Wolff, who previously was the CEO of United Airlines. The announcement of the change was made in November 1996 and it coincided with what was then the single largest plane order in history, for 400 Airbus jets. The name change was done to make the airline sound less “parochial” and “short-haul” and came on the heels of the PHL TATL expansion, which began in earnest in 1995 with the addition of FRA, FCO, MAD, MUC, and ORY. The livery change from bare metallic was attributed to the Airbus order in part, because bare metal does not work on most Airbus frames. AA had the same issue with the A300-600s, which were painted in a grey color scheme. The USAirways logo change to the stylized American flag had nothing to do with BA. The issue was that BA had no use for US. The hub markets and connectivity were not global enough for BA and that’s why BA went with AA and on to create OW.

  26. If US airways was such a great airline to work for, why did my ex-wife hate working for US air? She was an original Piedmont airline reservationist, but when US Air took over the hating ensued… Now as for American Gary, please get your story straight. It was not a takeover by US Air. It was a merger. However, the American airlines TWA story goes American bought TWA because TWA started liquidation proceedings. They absolute best CEO of American airlines in history was Robert Crandall and I guarantee if he would have still been running American there would have been no merger whatsoever. America West the parent corporation went in and built USAir, and now AA is literally ran by the old America West management, which is where Parker became CEO. The funny thing about it is that when USAir was finally the fifth largest airline and was looking to merge, nobody wanted to merge with them, and they were looking at another bankruptcy,
    ( they went through 2 BK’S already ) and the only reason why that they are given the grace of the mergers is because we got tired of dealing with Horton and we tried to go around Horton and go directly to Parker to discuss a deal too close the merger because we already knew what kind of a person Horton was and we got tired of getting screwed by the CEOs that proceeded Mr. Horton. Mind you we were the only company with union employees that reversed Don Carty ironclad agreement in which all employee groups gave back 23% of our wages and benefits just so he could split half of that and give it to upper management for talent retaining. So when Wall Street journal leaked it out we went back to the board and told them if they didn’t fire. Don Carty that we were going to renege all of the contracts that we had signed so guess what? They fired him and gave him a golden parachute and then that’s when Mr. Horton came in and started cleaning house for the pre-merger with USAir, then again Mr. Horton also got a unbelievably sized golden parachute when he left. But just to kind of tell you what Robert Crandall was to American, our stock, at the time when Crandall was running the airline, it was about $293.00 a share. Looking it now, it barely hits $13.00, and the only mistake that Crandall made in my eyes, was buying Reno Airways and merging with AIR CAL, both those deals turned out to be a huge bust and ruined employee morale American wanted to create their presence on the west coast, tried it twice, and failed miserably. Air Cal being the biggest disaster, AA built up SJC , tried to turn it into a Pacific rim gateway even though they already had San Francisco. But the main reason why they wanted San Jose is because of the weather. It was way better than San Francisco could ever be, but then the city fathers of San Jose said no to Americans plan for a longer runway after the fact American had already dumped a ton of money into building the new AA terminal. They were literally forced to shut down the idea of lengthening the runway, and severely downgraded SJC, Reno Air was less of a bet that it would succeed… But the reality was No matter how many airlines that were left to merge on the west coast American had no shot at being the predominantly west coast force because of PSA airlines and because of the fact that they were merged/ takeover by US Air, then all of a sudden a little known airline called Southwest airlines took the west coast by storm! And has done so across the country, in fact, AA should thank their lucky stars that Southwest has not encroached on the European routes, but they are creeping in on their Caribbean routes and Hawaiian routes. The difference is between American and Southwest. Is that Southwest keeps their planes flying constantly? Plus they don’t have any red eye flights, or at least I’m not aware of.

  27. Señor Leff,

    Remember when they were considering creating a DCAir to try to push forward with a merger but then gave it up? If that merger creating DCAir as an antitrust enforcement avoidance path would have taken place then the pace and scale of mileage devaluation would have been worse sooner than it has turned out to be.

  28. @GUWonder – I’m not sure that it would have, actually, remember that this was before 9/11 and the ensuing recession, and of course that was followed a few years later by the Great Recession. MileagePlus had a major devaluation during that intervening period *anyway*. Would it really have been worse? Not so sure.

    It would also have meant that America West wouldn’t have acquired US Airways! Scott Kirby was the driver of the April 2014 AAdvantage devaluation, against the recommendations of the loyalty team, and similarly of the 2016 devaluation.

  29. Don’t forget it was AMERICA WEST AIRLINES that took over US Airways when it was 48 hours from liquidation. In that case the US Airways name was held to stay away from contract issues with the pilots of US Airways.

  30. @Rory Higman – Exactly…plus US Airways had newer airplanes with significant Eastern hub assets that drove way more revenue than PHX and the small LAS operation. Geez, now I’ve fallen into that “who saved who” argument, which is silly. Most of us were working stiffs and were not involved in any decision making about any of it, so when someone say’s they “saved” someone, it is truly hysterical. Airline employee tribalism is no more credible than a playground argument between bullies. Your lot in life is mostly chance and out of your control. All airlines are great and all airlines suck, it just depends on many factors that happen to be common to all of them.

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