At an employee event last week, a flight attendant asked American Airlines CEO Doug Parker about the poor new domestic product – and what she’s supposed to tell customers when they ask her,
- About the small lavatories.
I have to think about it before I go in, if I’m gonna go in backwards or forwards because they’re so small…The fact that you want flight attendants to wash their hands, and everybody else to wash their hands, these sinks are so small you can hardly wash your hands some times.
- About the crammed-in seats.
Same with the seating, they’re angry because the seating..these people are getting crammed in the seats even more.
Parker made several points in response.
- Other airlines do it too.
- We add more seats to provide transportation to more customers
- And small lavatories are used to give inches back to customers at their seats
That reminds me of Obi Wan Kenobi, when confronted by Luke Skywalker over having claimed his father was dead when in reality he’s Darth Vader, in Return of the Jedi. Kenobi responds, “[W]hat I told you was true, from a certain point of view.”
American is Making Its Domestic Product Worse Across the Board
American’s small lavatories, where I find myself pressing against both walls when standing straight in, have gotten much of the attention but American is also:
- Reducing the distance between seats – not just in coach, but also reducing legroom in Main Cabin Extra and in first class
- Reducing seat padding so that the seats themselves are less comfortable
- Eliminating seat back entertainment screens, leaving passengers to rely on their phones to stream content
They squeeze in more seats by stealing inches from every row, by stealing inches from the lavatory, and by even eliminating the divider between first class and coach.
This degraded domestic product creates a reverse halo effect. American offers nice international business class seats, but most passengers fly domestically and fly in coach most of the time. Even people whose companies are buying them international business class tickets usually have some threshold for flight distance before doing so, so international business class customers are usually sitting in back on short flights. And by experiencing a poor product on most of their flying they assume that the airline’s business class must be subpar as well. In other words because of the decimation of coach they don’t get the credit – or revenue – from international business class they deserve.
Meanwhile flight attendants get mixed messages about the service they’re supposed to be delivering. Is American an ultra low cost carrier, or a premium carrier? It’s unclear to employees, so their efforts with customers are inconsistent too.
Other Airlines Aren’t Offering the Same Degraded Product as American
Jeff Bezos says the biggest mistake businesses make is focusing on what competitors do instead of what customers want. However the first defense of smaller lavatories is that they’re doing what other airlines are doing.
Doug Parker began offering that “those restrooms weren’t invented by American Airlines. We weren’t the first ones to put them on. Indeed Delta Air Lines was the first one to put them on. They’ve been flying with that restroom on some of their airplanes since 2015 I believe, and without any sort of customer adverse reaction as they say.”
The bigger point he’s making is that other airlines are also squeezing more seats into planes, echoing the first studio album from The Cranberries, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”
On the seats themselves, putting more seats on airplanes, this again we came into this merger we – I came from US Airways of course, you look at the two aircraft types where we flew the same aircraft types, and American did have fewer seats per shell than US Airways. It also had fewer seats per shell than Delta Air Lines, than United Airlines, we – and again that was a choice for American, what I will tell you is it was a choice that didn’t generate higher revenues, it allowed us to only be able to serve fewer customers.
And Parker points out they won’t add in more seats and squeeze customers more than their competitors will, “It can get to a point where it’s obviously not competitive, where it’s not something you would see on another airline, where it’s not comfortable enough.”
Let’s look at the facts. American is going from 160 seats to 172 seats on their Boeing 737-800 aircraft. United also operates the 737-800, and has no more than 166 seats on that plane. Delta’s 737-800s have just 160 seats.
It is true that Delta has densified its Airbus narrowbodies in a manner similar to what American is planning to do with theirs. However they still offer some coach seats with 31 inches of pitch, without going under 30 anyway, and they can get away with doing this because:
- Unlike American they offer seat back entertainment
- They offer better customer service
- And they’re more operationally reliable
In other words, American is making their domestic product worse like Delta — without offering the positives Delta provides.
Meanwhile Southwest Airlines which is the largest carrier of domestic passengers still offers 32 inches of pitch on its planes. Southwest, it’s true, has similar lavatories on their new planes. They aren’t going back and putting those smaller lavs into the rest of the fleet like American is. However at Southwest it’s actually true that the extra space is going back into the cabin the way Parker claims is the case at American.
Delta Never Attached Flight Attendant Jump Seats to the Lavatory
According to Parker, everyone else has densified their product, and no one has gone as far as Delta.
Delta has done an amazing job with their product and their customer service. They get more seats on the same size airplane than we do. They do things for example like put flight attendant jump seats on the door of the restroom. I promise. You can’t sit in your jump seat if someone wants to use the restroom. We’re not ever gonna do anything like that.
Doug Parker repeated this same canard at the beginning of last year, too. Delta never “put flight attendant jump seats on the door of the restroom.”
However the seat did have to remain stowed for flight attendants to access galley carts or to allow access to the lavs.
More importantly, however, four years ago Delta reversed course and took out 3 seats from their Airbus A320s and A321s because they had taken away too much room from the galleys for flight attendants to work.
American Didn’t Really Reduce Lavatory Size to Give Customers More Legroom
Parker would have you believe that smaller lavatories are about giving customers more space. After all we spend more time in our seats than the lavatories, so don’t we value the space at our seats more?
If indeed the choice is an entire flight where everyone on the airplane has their share of 2 inches of legroom where as opposed to when you use the restroom it’s gonna be tighter than what you’re used to using.
…It’s new to American, so I know all of us that are used to the American product, but what that bathroom allows – what that small slimline restroom – allows is more room in the cabin which is where customers would prefer to have it which is more legroom. Taking 2 inches off of that bathroom doesn’t put a whole new row in, it allows us two more inches somewhere in the cabin to give some people some more legroom. That’s what it was designed for and that’s why Boeing designed this bathroom.
However it’s simply not true that the decision to shrink the lavatories on Boeing 737 MAX aircraft – and to put these smaller lavs now on the rest of their Boeing 737 fleet – was about giving more legroom to the customer.
The new smaller lavatories are being installed at the same time that the amount of customer space on the aircraft is shrinking.
You might interpret Parker as saying “we’d have to give customers even less space” than on the new configuration that has less space than before. But that’s wrong too.
When US Airways took over running American Airlines, Boeing 737s had 150 seats. Quickly they increased the count up to 160 seats. Now they’re pushing that up to 172, and part of how they’re getting two more rows of seats in is that the lavatories take up less space.
- Standard coach in American’s 737 MAXs and in the 737s they’ve retrofit is 30 inches of pitch, the distance from seat back to seat back. That’s less than the old standard 31 inches (which is what’s still in the 737s that haven’t gone in for ‘Oasis’ modifications).
- American’s original plan was to give some passengers just 29 inches of pitch.
- There was such an outcry – in the media, from customers, and from employees – that the airline backed away from this plan and committed to giving no less than 30 inches.
- Parker also says they aren’t looking to squeeze in more seats and go below 30 inches. (“We have reached a point where I can tell you no one is trying to figure out how to get more seats onto airplanes, but we did move to a standard that is much more industry competitive.”)
So it’s not the case that more space for the lavatory is being given back to the customer. It’s part of how they get as many seats into their planes as they do. If they had larger lavs they’d have to give back one row of seats. In other words they’d “only” have 166 seats on the plane, which is still over 10% more than when this management took over the airline.
American is All-In on a Failing Strategy
American’s President Robert Isom recently told investors that the airline was all-in on its strategy. The airline has simultaneously managed to anger investors, employees, and customers — and management believes they’ll get a different outcome by squeezing their face really hard, concentrating on D0, and somehow that will reverse their premium revenue problem.
Right from the top it’s clear that management believes giving customers less space, harder seats, and smaller lavatories is the way to get them to spend more money despite the fact that it hasn’t been successful so far.