On the front line for US Airways management

Suzanne Boda’s mission is to make the airline nimble and responsive.

The top executive in Philadelphia for US Airways Group Inc. is a serious runner who could probably beat her suitcase in a race to the baggage carousel from Gate C-28.

That wouldn't have been much of a feat a few years ago, when the time for a bag to move from one of the airline's planes to the claim area was routinely 45 minutes to an hour. But speeding things along has been a priority for senior vice president Suzanne Boda, hired early in 2008 to oversee a satellite headquarters here, and vice president Bob Ciminelli, who came on at the same time to run operations for the Philadelphia hub.

Suzanne Boda is the highest-ranking executive of US Airways ever based in Philadelphia. Being here, rather than at corporate headquarters in Tempe, Ariz., is “really critical,” she said. “There’s no way that you can get everything that’s going on if you’re sitting in Tempe.”

Now the average "bag drop" time is 19 minutes, and it's actually conceivable that a traveler's luggage could reach the claim area ahead of him. On-time arrivals for flights themselves went up from 62.4 percent in 2007 to 76 percent in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Boda said her company's strategy for the downturn was to be nimble at customer service and quick on its feet when economic turbulence hits.

Being here: Boda reports to US Airways' chief operating officer and is the highest-ranking executive ever based in Philadelphia by the Tempe, Ariz., airline. "To be here was really critical," she said. "There's no way that you can get everything that's going on if you're sitting in Tempe."

To reduce baggage delays, she and Ciminelli "really looked at processes from A to Z and had to identify: There's a choke point; here's another choke point; how do we eliminate that?" she said.

Bags are now scanned like overnight packages for tracking. By year's end, customers should be able to keep tabs on their luggage online and at kiosks "so it becomes more of a FedEx experience," Boda said.

The airline said the FBI was still investigating an incident early this month in which a US Airways employee was charged with helping a friend try to get an unloaded gun onto a plane. The airline declined to comment further.

I'm the recession, fly me: As the downturn took hold, US Airways cut back on flights to some vacation spots and added new revenue streams such as "a la carte" pricing for choice seats. Citing the swift response, analyst George Putnam's "Turnaround Letter" recently recommended the airline's stock.

US Airways has also been laser-focused on convenience, Boda said, "because if we're not convenient to do business with, our customers have a lot of choices out there."

Technology that is in the pipeline will soon let travelers schedule themselves onto alternative flights when they are grounded. "Let's say we're in a bad thunderstorm and it's a Friday afternoon at 5 o'clock - inevitable, right?" she said. "We have to be able to respond very quickly to that, and we have to give our customers options."

Global ambitions: US Airways plans to keep adding international destinations out of Philadelphia, Boda said. Next up are Tel Aviv, Israel, on July 1, and Rio de Janeiro, on Dec. 2.

Despite the economy, the airline is buying 15 new long-distance Airbus 330-200s for its fleet over the next three years. "One thing that I think it would be very easy to do is just stop taking those orders because it's a lot of expense and you don't know what's coming," she said. "But we didn't stop them, which I think is a very smart move because you really need to plan for the future.

"As in any business, it's cyclical," she said. "You don't plan for one or two years. You plan for 10, 15 years down the road."

(The Air France jet en route from Brazil that went down May 31 was also a 330-200. US Airways is replacing air-speed indicators "out of an abundance of caution," a spokesman said, even though the FAA has not yet issued a directive to do so.)

Hold the presses: Liberal-arts grad makes good! Boda grew up in small-town Minnesota and first traveled abroad as a Rotary exchange student in Japan. She majored in Asian studies and Spanish at Gustavus Adolphus College, "a very liberal-arts college" in Minnesota, graduating midrecession in 1982. "It was sort of like, OK, now what should I do with my life?"

Northwest Airlines Corp. was hiring Japanese-speaking customer-service agents, so she signed on and ended up staying with the airline for 26 years. Before the Philadelphia job at US Airways, she had been vice president of customer service at Northwest's Memphis hub, among other executive posts. Her husband, George Grindahl, just retired as an aircraft-maintenance supervisor for Northwest.

Executive boot camp, bring sneakers: Midcareer, Boda also completed the six-week Michigan Executive Program in 2001 at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business.

One odd requirement was that students exercise for an hour each morning, "which was cool," she said. "If I can get a run in every day, I'm very happy." She has competed in 10Ks, half-marathons, and triathlons.

Beyond the Art Museum steps: Newly settled in a Center City condo, Boda has begun to run along Kelly Drive "and down the museum row there" on the Parkway. She studied European art at the Prado during a semester in Spain and has also been exploring inside the museums here.

The Rodin Museum is next on her to-do list, the Barnes Foundation already a favorite. "I have friends who are art majors who say, 'Oh, my gosh! That is just the best place in the world! How can you not go there every day?'

"I say, 'Well, I have a job.' "