American Airlines CEO: United And Delta Could Force Us To Put In Seat Back Entertainment

Doug Parker, Chairman and CEO of American Airlines, told employees on Thursday at a town hall question and answer session, that they’ll be watching what United’s new plan for seat back video screens – along with Delta’s current screens – means for competition. This could force the airline, he says, to install seat back screens again as well.

American Airlines is clearly now on the defensive over its domestic inflight product, which not only features two inches less space for each passenger than Southwest Airlines does, the seats lack padding and there’s no personal video screens. Delta has long been committed to screens at each seat, and United announced not just an order for new domestic planes with screens but also a plan to retrofit their existing fleet to offer them.

During the American earnings call last week airline President Robert Isom dodged the question from a journalist over whether they regret removing these screens from planes, saying he “want[s] to focus on what we’ve got.”

His focus is on high speed wifi and a plan to bring back live TV, and argues that screens aren’t needed (because everyone has a phone to watch something on) and that screens are heavy so are bad for the environment (since the added weight burns more fuel). That’s hardly satisfying,

  • Since Delta was always just as committed to high speed wifi, and United’s fleet retrofit plan addresses their internet deficiency
  • Since the airline still won’t publicly commit to a timeline for live TV (which they weren’t alone in offering when they had it)
  • And the environmental claim is especially far-fetched since the airline is adding seats to planes which increases weight and fuel burn.

The answers on this aren’t satisfying to employees either, who asked about American’s competitive response since the other major global U.S. carriers are going to offer something that many passengers consider to be a better product.

It was only just in April when American’s Chief Commercial Officer mocked United’s plan to add video screens as each seat as “pretty[ing] up old planes.” Now United is ordering hundreds of new planes and she can’t be so dismissive.

She took the employee question and argued American had to choose between seat back video and ‘great wifi,’ “and we of course chose the latter because wifi enables us to provide the most up-to-date rich content than we can.” And she argues that seat back screens are “outdated by the time they’re delivered.” Delta, and soon United of course, will offer both fast wifi and screens – not one or the other.

Parker, though, added that “we’ll obviously monitor the competitive environment and if we find this is actually something that matters to customers we can adapt.” He continued,

[A]s we look to the future, we happen to believe, that if indeed we do find this is an issue, much more likely what we would end up with is a seat back device that’s wireless, that is just using the existing wifi we have…that technology will exist soon if it doesn’t already.

It’ll be better by the time we need to do it while others are working to do this. None of us think it makes any sense to put hard-wired seat back devices into airplanes that have the kind of wifi we have on ours. We’ll continue to monitor, if indeed it becomes a competitive issue we can easily and quickly respond.

They’ve got years to go figure out if this does and if it does by that time we’ll be in a really nice position to do things including perhaps devices by that time that are simply throwaway devices after they’re used in the seat back.

Delta will be using wireless technology to stream to seat back screens. It’s only roughly one-third the cost of the old wired systems. That’s not some future technology.

While it’s good to hear from the CEO that the airline is open to learning that it made a mistake – four years after their new domestic product debuted, and after the ripped out screens from existing planes – it fails to learn the lesson Jeff Bezos implores which is to focus on what your customers want, not on what competitors do since it’s only after American faces getting left behind in passenger experience that they’re even open to changing course.

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, 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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  1. No padding on the seats. Brilliant ! Not enough fuel one boarding agent, not enough pilots and crew. You should manage the Yankees!

  2. I fly American because my home airport is an AA hub and non-stop to my frequent destinations for work. Luckily I am a smallish woman (5’4” sz 8 ) by US standards, and it still feels cramped for me. These poor men who have to squeeze in these seats, I feel really bad for them. Can’t you give us all 2 more inches? I don’t we care about screens on headrests, I will use my phone or laptop anyway. Also the gate employees are kind of crappy. Luckily I only have to endure short flights or I would probably move to another airline.

  3. Just flew American, I’m only 5’2″, my knees were hitting the seat in front of me, definitely no padding, and wifi was sketchy. My husband is a gold member but we will be looking at other airlines.

  4. High-speed WiFi is great but it has to work consistently. Just two weeks ago, on a 4 and a half hour American flight, the WiFi went out about 30 minutes after takeoff and never came back on. I’d rather have the bigger more comfortable seats back too! Nowadays, the only benefit to flying first class (when we can) is the extra room.

  5. AA just has a cheap/basic product, not much better than Spirit (not a ding against Spirit). With no first class meals (cold coach sandwiches are not meals – more of snacks if anything), poor quality seats, no entertainment, wifi works ‘most’ of the time, but not always, the lowest amount of legroom in the business, the lowest quantity of extra legroom seats (which actually have the same amount of room of the standard seats on jetblue and Southwest), and inconsistent crew – it’s not a competitive product. That the CEO is focused on all of that as a competitive product is the issue.

  6. Oh… Wait a f*xkimg second… You mean to tell me that paying passengers matter??? You mean the employee feedback with open questions /lack of answers matter??? Wow I can’t believe it only took you morons (and by morons i mean Doug, Robert, and Elise which I’m not even sure she knows what planet she is on…(shot out to Derek Kerr because he’s the only one that actually gives a flying duck apparently)). Try to just do a little survey next time with paying passenger’s and employees… Believe it or not your employees are on top of things man… Way more than us pax…. Don’t think your employees are dumb Doug… I mean Elise lol

  7. I switched to AA from Delta, and while the service isn’t as consistently good, I don’t mind the lack of seat back screens… I have a tablet and wireless ear buds, and I just get on the free wifi and stream content. Or I can play a game, or I can download content beforehand, or I can pay for wifi and work on my laptop. I’ve never once missed the screens.



  9. American business strategy is to downgrade the product as much as possible so the cost savings are higher than revenue lost from a few passengers jumping ship.

    Let’s face it, the Big Three have quasi monopoly power in most airports and why would they offer any service when you have to fly then anyway.

  10. It’s all about profits. How many bodies can you cram into one plane for one trip. I remember when there were only two screens one each bird. Should the unthinkable happen and the flight has to lay it down just how long would it take for someone to get out of their seat? And if the aisle seat patron gets pinned in how are the other row members going to get out? Because on impact those seats do move. Food for thought.

  11. Can you even imagine how much money they would end up wasting if they go through with adding screens again after just retrofitting their entire narrowbody fleet to not have them?

  12. The lack of seat back entertainment is a sore spot to me. Not everyone has a phone or tablet, so those people are screwed. Why should i put wear and tear on my device? Plus I have to hand hold my device; not very comfortable. Even using the fold out table there’s no way to support it.

  13. After just a couple weeks of saying they got schedule reliability under control, American is canceling two to three percent of their flights every day before the day even starts

  14. In last two years I flew first and business class on AA, both international and domestic. The lack of services is appalling!
    The agents are crabby, the flight attendants seem very uninterested and unhappy. Food is atrocious…the airplanes are outdated and years behind the competition. The lounges are worse than McDonald’s.
    I really hope I never have to fly with AA again.

  15. Gary is obsessed with the IFE. Passengers, perhaps with the exception of some first-time fliers, not so much from my observation. I’ve taken 6 AA flights, 4 of which were long-haul international, in the last month or so, and everyone I talked to thought having free online access to the AA library was far preferable to limited offerings on seat back devices. Passengers don’t have to figure out how to work anything- they know their own device. And it’s true that’s it’s a huge expense installing and maintaining devices that are obsolete shortly after the fleet is complete. Legroom and seat comfort, on the other hand….well, it’s terrible. I understand the competitive necessity with carriers like Spirit and Allegiant forcing the legacies to adapt or die, but I just flew an A319 in a middle seat, and it was physically painful.

  16. Everyone these days own wireless headphones so they can’t connect to the screens anyway.

  17. Americans planes and service have gone so far downhill. The seats are horrible, even in 1st class. The service in 1st is like being in coach at best, and pretty much non existing in coach. The video screens would at least make the flight tolerable. The wifi goes in and out which causes your phone or tablet to freeze. American use to be number 1. Now its just like another low budget airline.

  18. I have flown 3 times in the last 5 weeks. VI. Florida. I tried 3 times to get headphones. An every one of the flight attendee said we are almost out. Never to return. I tried to get movies on my phone. No luck!!
    Very disappointed in American. I want a movie. You should supply it. On the seats or in the air for more people.

  19. I have points on all the airlines,I have no ipad or laptop so for a long flight I avoid American like the plague,don’t get way they don’t want to be competetive with Delta and United,AA used to be my favorite,not they are more like Spirit and their agents and flight attendants are rude too.Aslo Miami International is by far the worst airport in the United States,pathetic.I now have more miles on United,Delta,Spirit and Southwest than on American,I think they are trying their best to run off their good customers,hope they wake up,once the best now at the bottom,so sad.

  20. What is most important is the distance in fromt and back of seats as well as the seat width. We are crammed like cattle now. It’s so uncomfortable to travel. Seat screens are often at the wrong distance, are subject to glare, and offer linited choices. Avoid them and use the inplementation/maintenance cost and fuel saving to have less passengers in planes. Wifi is the way to go. It offers more flexibility and you can choose the distance at which you look at your phone. This is the way to go for continental travel at least. Please put back some comfort back in traveling.

  21. I agree with removing screens because they’re outdated even before they ship.

    If you’re using it, you might as well be riding a horse carriage instead of an airplane. Planes are the state of the art of mainstream travel and need not be held back by outdated tech.

  22. In seat entertainment, huh?

    That’s your big concern?

    Here’s one for you, try on time flights and less canceled flights….ooh. oooh, I know, maybe treating your customers a little better…especially the business travelers. Maybe you won’t need to distract your customers with in seat entertainment if you provided better service. Just a thought.

  23. I love my Delta! I can choose to watch almost a hundred movies on their international flights. Only one reason I avoid American

  24. Movie selection and screen are independent. Savings from not having screens can go toward more movies.

  25. Agreed. Just flew AA today and will do all I can to continue to fly Delta and United over American. Honestly, I see absolutely zero benefit to AA.

  26. Even AA’s FC fares aren’t competitive with United’s And United offers seatback entertainment and meals!

  27. with no screens on seat back AA is no long competetive with ua or dl,they are loosing loyal travellers left and right,little legroom too,they are going backwards like a landslide,they are now my last choice,used to be always my first!

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