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 And she argues that seat back screens are “outdated by the time they’re delivered.”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.
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.