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 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. AA should not concern itself with seatback screens until it can solve its problem of having way too many horrible power tripping employees.

  2. At least if American decides to add seatback entertainment Allison Taylor can now say guest feedback indicates that gussied up planes are preferred so “we are going to pretty up our old planes” since her new aircraft will now be older then United’s.

  3. While I think that Parker is an inept bumbler who has no idea how to run a major airline, I have to give him props for doing these meetings where people will at times ask uncomfortable questions. TPG could learn a lesson on that and practice adulting by re-enabling comments.

  4. American is the biggest garbage airline, uncomfortable seats, crammed spaces, poor service, delays and cancelations. Do us all a favor and skip the seat back entertainment and close the company

  5. What I still think is missing in this conversation is the IFE experience. The seat backs are currently far superior than the web portal. If AA made a killer, integrated IFE experience (think maps, news, BoB, personalized connecting gate info, the ability to pick up where you left off across multiple content etc.), they would have a winner. Instead we just get a crummy VoD player and ho hum TV (which has mainly been axed during COVID).

  6. Flew AA for the first time last week, and it was uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe how tight the 787 was, I was just thankful I was flying it between LAX and DFW, not all the way to Australia. The seat backs were also quite low, even with the headrest up it was still around my neck area. Ironically I was more comfortable in their Oasis 737 on the next flight.

    Having screens does help (and newer tech means it should be better than what was available 10 years ago). But AA has a long way to go; their domestic main cabin product is hardly different than Southwest or Alaska.

  7. Skip the seat back screens.
    You can get everything on your phone or computer, like southwest.

  8. What the $#$# !!!

    Given he has told us that this is what people WANT, shouldn’t he be celebrating that the competition is making a huge error by forcing seatback video on people. Or is this an acknowledgement he has been lying to us?

  9. The airlines have reduced seat size & leg room to the point that people are pissed and can’t blame them for going off since they are treated like cattle. I never fly American or United they are the worse!

  10. Why doesn’t AA try to set themselves apart by also offering more comfortable seats and more legroom than competitors?

  11. I like to work on my laptop with live TV or a movie on in the background. It would be hard to do both on my laptop and a lot more invasive.

  12. Its about time Dougie and his cronies have learned they made a big mistake and wasted money on ripping out the IFE’s and seats in the AA legacy planes for the stiff uncomfortable Frontier Spirit Oasis seats.with less padding and legroom. AA was a step ahead of UA and DL with their aircraft. As for everyone with their own device, that’s not true, you have families with their kids, the seniors and hell people like myself that will not use s personal device but prefers the IFE. Wake up Dougie and remember the customer and the inflght experience for the customer and what you can offer for free above your rivals. If you do that and clean up and get rid of the lazy flight attendant syndrome and retrain them on what the inflight experience should be for the customer American Airlines can be the airline that it once was. Until that is done it will continue to be at the bottom where it is now which is truly truly unbelievable and sad.

  13. They need to lower the prices. Flew business class to Cancun in May for the 1/2 the price AA wanted on United. United fares have been souch cheaper

  14. The Christian trinity doctrine illuminates the true nature of the three mainline carriers: three coeternal and consubstantial corporations comprising one effective monopoly

  15. When did having laptops, iPads and smartphones become required technology for every traveler? Does everybody need to bring a laptop on a leisure trip? Does every family have to possess technology for everyone in their party?
    Just because some comments doesn’t think IFE is necessary, that
    doesn’t mean it’s not welcome by a majority of flyers. Road warrior and aviation buff opinions don’t represent the entire traveling public.
    With a large majority of travelers only flying once a year, Delta and United can’t be that wrong in believing their passengers deserve an experience that includes IFE.

  16. Comfortable seating and personal space is a lot more desirable than IFE.
    Comfortable passengers are a lot more satisfied with the overall experience. Continuing to shove passengers into small spaces and asking them to be content with reduced services will eventually reflect in lost customer loyalty.

  17. AA offers lounge access to passengers flying first class…. BUT only internationally. Oh and by the way, the only destination in Mexico that is considered international is Mexico City. AA cancels a flight from Canada because of Covid restrictions. They only offer a credit, but it MUST be on a flight originating in Canada!!! Things unheard of with other airlines (except maybe Spirit)

  18. If the phone charger outlets actually worked without constantly needing to wiggle them, it wouldn’t be quick as absurd.

    But they don’t. I’d I really need power , I have to bring a foreign adapter plus because both the USB and two prong outlet don’t work well.

  19. Doug has lost his mind if he doesn’t recognize ALREADY that people want seatback entertainment. Customers and employees have been saying it for years.

  20. Maybe Mr. Potatohead, and Secretary Buttplug can just give them another hundred or so billion dollars to make up for any revenue shortfall (real or implied) as a result of people flying their competitors.

  21. I fly American only when I don’t have any other choice. It’s ridiculous how much less room you have. Delta is much more comfortable to fly. The screens are nice, but still wouldn’t cause me to fly American.

  22. I dunno. For me, I much prefer just downloading TV shows/movies from netflix on my iPhone and watching them while I’m on a flight. I have one of those light $20 USB powerbanks in case I need to recharge my smartphone. I’m a leisure flyer by the way and not a road warrior.

  23. @CHRIS – President Potatohead and his cronies are out of office, so your suggestion is unlikely unless the foil hat crowd is right and he resumes office again next month.

  24. All I can say is that after almost 5 million miles on AA and 15+ years of executive platinum I have now status matched with Delta, and I love it.

  25. As a long time Plat Pro member, I can tell Doug Parker: THEY DO MATTER. Period. Add then back NOW. Not in 4 years. Plus there are several interesting and useful features that the “entertainment app” doesn’t have, the in flight cameras and world maps, terminal maps, and interesting other content. Was BAD MOVE to remove them.

  26. Welll being a flight Attendant for American. I hear it all! I can say that when the plane is full people are so cramped together, they get really cranky.. but same situation and TV screens , people play games watch a movie.. they are happier. If the flight has empty seats and people can spread around the screens do not matter as much. Almost all flights are full now. I wish most of all for more room and comfortable seats for the passengers

  27. I could be wrong (Tim Dunn, please note those four words), but I’m guessing (not stating definitively) that relatively cost-effective, reliable, tablet-based wireless in-seat entertainment systems weren’t readily available when Americans ordered the seats and other items it’s using to retrofit its aircraft. Airlines can’t “snap their corporate fingers” and retrofit aircraft instantaneously. It takes time to change out almost 1,000 aircraft, not to mention millions of dollars. Did American make a mistake? Quite possibly. But as Howard Cosell used to say, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” I’m guessing American has spent close to a billion dollars to retrofit its aircraft. That’s not pocket change. It would be silly to simply toss all of it into a landfill at this point. It might as well complete its current project and go from there.

    This story isn’t news to those who listened to Isom’s remarks on the earnings call. He quietly mentioned that American is looking at its options. I have no issue with people who raise valid criticism. But I do have a problem when they’re condescending about it or apply double standards.

    Alaska, Hawaiian, Southwest, and other highly regarded airlines seem to get along quite well without built-in entertainment or power at every seat. When was it mandated that every airline had to offer exactly the same amenities and services?

    I’ve rarely flown in a comfortable airline coach seat, and I’m in my early 70’s. Most airlines have always had a sardine can mentality when it comes to coach cabins, and they’ve rarely made the seat cushions truly comfortable. The closest I came was on Midwest Airlines, when it had its 2-2 configuration in its DC-9s. That was a nice ride. At least with the legacies, one has the option to buy up. One is stuck with an uncomfortable seat on Southwest and the ULCCs. But I have no issue with that. I know what I’m getting and I can put up with an uncomfortable seat for two to three hours.

    Last time I checked, Airlines are in the transportation business, not the entertainment or restaurant businesses. As long as I get where I’m going safely and reasonably on schedule, I’m okay.

  28. As a long time business flyer, I quit flying United and American years ago. American due to a complete lack of care to customer service and United due to a case of what I witnessed as extreme discrimination. When I contacted Untited about the discrimination, all I got in return was — crickets.

    American is not a bad airline, it’s just that some of their flight attendents, albeit 10 years ago, could care less about business or less flyers. I lived this one more than one occasion.

    United one the other hand, in flight, had an attendant demonstrate one of the worst cases of discrimination I have ever witnessed. And being an old white guy, that’s a stretch.
    A flight attendent berated a Hispanic gentleman not only in front of the the entire flight, but his 10 yr. old daughter. Then she went forward and was telling the rest of the crew about what she’d done, while a white passenger did the exact same thing thenhispanic gentleman had done, with not one word spoken to him.
    I emailed United about the incident, and their response was silence. To me that speaks volumes about the leadership of United. I’ve never flown them again and wouldn’t fly them if someone else bought the ticket.
    Treating all customers with respect is the foundation of customer service, and what I saw and received, silence, from United spoke volumes to me. While it wasn’t me that was abused by the flight attendant, it changed me forever.

  29. I totally agree with Christian about Parker is an inept bumbler along with his America West/USairways croonies that don’t know how to run a Major Airline like American. As long as they’re in charge, AA will continue to be nothing but Greyhound in the air. It’s very sad to see what American has become from the days when it was the No.1 best airline in the USA. Does Parker and Isom read these comments so they can wake up and realize what the public think about what they’re doing to AA? To Parker and his croonies, you have destroyed what once was the best in the industry. And I also agree with Radio, airlines are in the transportation business not entertainment or restaurant business. Their job is to get you to your destination safely and on time (sometimes).

  30. AA inflight is poor recently flew SEA DFW SEA and still can’t believe that one of the planes didn’t have power/USB chargers how can they expect you to have your own device and not provide power, what are they thinking, even a 3rd grader would get that isnt a smart move and how much are they paying the C-suite. Plus their web portal experience is so poorly designed and buggy, again bug failure. Now I am oneworld emerald so have some loyalty to AA with my OW status but also DL Diamond and their product is so much better and with the TMobile plan I get free Wi-Fi whats not to like. Haven’t flown UA for a long time last time was SEA-IAD I think and wasn’t impressed but that was probably 4 years ago so they may have improved

  31. American is the worst airline I’ve ever flown on. Crappy narrow seats, no refreshments, and they squeeze you in there worst than a can of sardines. First and only time- we will definitely spend more for a ticket on a different airline.

  32. Uh no Doug. UA nor DL are forcing you to do anything.
    American has gone from 1st to worst among the big 3.
    You seem to be looking over your shoulder at the ULCC’s.
    Not everyone is looking for the cheapest way to get from point A to B.
    I’d say not even most of us. There are those of us that have fond memories of what air travel was and should be
    Not the plane loads of what appears to have been the bus crowd.
    Ah, dirt cheap fares! Gotta love ’em.
    Perhaps this is the new normal.
    Guess you can’t miss what you never knew.

  33. Last week I overheard a pair boarding during group 9 educate themselves on airline amenities. “Yo no screens, even in first class? For real?”

  34. I think it’s fine that screens are out but the real problem is the WiFi. Most people want free wifi. But when you get in planes when the WiFi is broken and doesn’t work. It’s turns real quick to a flight of hell. Most people will pay for wifi but handing free wifi like other airlines it’s a better product

  35. AA management or should I say Usair needs to go. Wipe the slate clean top to bottom. Us air was a broke down airline unfortunately AA decided to merge and keep the management team. From the workers outlook from the bottom up the Arline is horrible. Morale is at an all time low. AA only now wants to contract out all jobs to the lowest bidder. I predict no more AA employees just contractors who don’t give a ….! You will see service fall.
    Now Baggy ass Parker and his team are going to have to eat there words add screens and change the seats. This will cost millions. This team can and will leave with Golden parachutes do they really care?

  36. Don’t tell anyone but the new American Airlines is more like the New America West. Not everyone has a personal entertainment device like AA seems to think. It was obvious to Scott Kirby when he saw his kids fixated on the IFE devices. AA (USAIR) Maintenance drove the decision to remove the IFE devices not Marketing. AA should also consider restoring their premium service in Business and First Class by bringing back the hot nuts and ice cream sundaes too. Using COVID-19 as an excuse for eliminating them will only last so long.

  37. I’ll take America West any day. I always had pleasant flights on the airline. Its crews didn’t have the sense of entitlement many airline crews seem to have today. I may be wrong, but if memory serves, US Airways had lie-flat seats (its Envoy Suites) before American did. Did anyone mention that Southwest doesn’t have TV or power at its seats? Delta has virtually the same number of seats on its A320 family aircraft as American, but that gets ignored. Why the double standards? And why do airline fans seem to think all legacy airlines have to be exactly the same? Did American make a mistake in its refurbishment program? Quite possibly. But that doesn’t mean it deserves to be liquidated.

  38. I fly AA two to four times per week. Mostly East coast. I can attest that wifi is still bad. Slow even for basic browsing and utterly unreliable. Same with old and new planes.i don’t care about wife gate to gate because I can use my hotspot.

  39. I only fly AA when my company’s booking system forces rhe lower fare on me. It’s horrivle. Legroom is skimpy, seats are old and uncomfortable, planes are only 50% on time (my experience) and crews and gate agents are mostly curt and unpleasant.
    I suspect the lower fares only mean low demand and therefore more inexperienced travelers who add to the negative experience for those traveling on business.
    I feel blaming the lack of on board entertainment is a cop out. AA has more serious issues to address.

  40. Flew IAH to ORD last week, first class, no power outlets. Unbelievable. Wayyy behind the times, AA.

  41. JetBlue offers free wifi. Just please offer free wifi to all guests. We’re parents and travel JetBlue to Boston almost yearly. The screens are cool but the wifi is where it’s at. I can focus my energy off my fear of flying and my young children can watch whatever shows they have on their tablets. It keeps us all calm, seriously. Our most recent flight on AA had me nearly requiring a brown bag to breathe into. No wifi, no screens, the inflight program wouldn’t connect at all for our second flight leaving me twiddling my thumbs and freaking out over any little turbulence. By luck we downloaded a few shows for our kids car ride and they could watch that. But it was a horrible experience that has left me saying “absolutely not” to any future AA flight.

  42. Complain all you want about the inflight experience. People continue to buy tickets on AA, and as long as AA is filling seats while maximizing revenue, they will not improve at the expense of profits.

    As a former TWA and AA employee, I watched how the internet changed the landscape. Consumers are all about price and convenience, not the inflight experience.

    I remember when TWA got rid of the Airphones. A guy sitting next to me was complaining that the product was diminished and he would avoid flying TWA in the future. All over an Airphones? Nah, I knew he would book another trip right away regardless because he didn’t fly TWA because of an Airphone. He flew TWA because of price and convenience.

    So AA will lose customers to Delta and United over seat back TV? Maybe a few. But the planes are full and AA is making money. As long as that doesn’t change why add expense? I’m flying DFW to MCO for a conference on AA. Sure I could fly someone else, but it’s a direct non-stop flight verses a connection or alternate airport. And the price is right. Price and convenience.

  43. I’ll take AA free carry on bag over UALs hefty charge for a carry on anytime.The there is the matter of killing a stressed mother’s and her kids dog,forcing it into an overhead bin and allowing the FA to deny it all.Nope,UAL only with no other choice available!They can keep their screen.

  44. Asking passengers to use their own device for entertainment would be great IF their wifi supported it. I have now been on 8 flights in a row, all different planes, where only a few people could get on the wifi. Most passengers trying to access sat looking at a spinning icon and could . never get on.
    I would prefer seatback screens to that.
    And now the food served in First is so abysmal. They are not making the experience one that could even be called “decent”.

  45. I’d prefer a better airline, including better seat cushion and legroom, to seatback screens.
    Interesting how other airlines can do almost all of these things better than AA and still make money…

  46. As a legacy American Airlnes flight attendant of 27 years, it breaks my heart to see what Doug Parker and this bunch have done to this airline. I love what I do, I still take pride in what I do, and I can’t find fault with any complaint that has been lobbed on this thread. He brought a cheap culture with him, and sowed animosity among the work groups. Apparently that is his modis operandi. But this time it is so toxic, it is going to take a clean sweep to clear it out. I only hope and pray that our customers will stick with us through it.

  47. I fly to Puerto Plata Dominican Republic and between my connecting Flight in Miami to Pop its long 6 hour day on an aircraft. Taking away the Seat back TV has made the flight very boring and tiring. Customers Services has gotten horrible and the seats are tight and jammed together. I now rather fly Delta to STI and pay the transportation transfer to Puerto Plata. You should just go out of Business

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