American’s CEO: We Copy Competitors By Putting Smaller Restrooms On Planes

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.

  1. Other airlines do it too.
  2. We add more seats to provide transportation to more customers
  3. 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.

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. Simple fix since I can’t get near their toilet now without hitting my head on the ceiling- pee in the sink! Put a pic of Dougie in the drain so you are on target.- please rinse when done

  2. And AA lost any Latam hope they had…AA’s board should be fired for not canning all AA senior leadership. They’ve all driven AA into the ground, can they pull out of this spiral?

  3. I realize I’m taller than most (6’5″) but I haven’t seen anyone write about my problem with these small lavatories. With the strong curvature of the wall/ceiling in the bathrooms, I can’t get close to the toilet. I pretty much have to keep my heels against the door and pray that everything goes where it’s supposed to. I can’t even lean in to hold up the seat if it’s one that “falls down” because my head hits the ceiling/wall long before my arms reach the toilet seat. What a mess. I wish it didn’t have to be this way.

  4. I know you’ll complain about seatback IFE until the end of time…but that picture of the seat with the attached mount for a phone/iPad and a USB power plug right next to it is my ideal seat back. Don’t assume your preferences map to the entire customer base at large.

  5. Complete disaster. I don’t think he or his minions make it past New Years. They can spin the LATAM news however they like but everyone knows it’s pure BS.
    Counting Down the Days

  6. I just got back from London on American – was on a 787 and the same crappy tight seats and small bathrooms. American should be ashamed of themselves. Just how much money are they really saving by doing this? Hate flying these days. Can’t afford business class; it’s ridiculously overpriced. Miss the old days with a decent sized pitch, a more comfortable seat that actually reclined and a decent sized bathroom.

  7. Parker is correct that Delta led the way on tiny bathrooms. DL had them on its 737-900 since it first started operating that model.

    I agree with @Brian re the curvature of the wall/ceiling in the tiny lavs. You might as well be on a RJ or prop plane.

  8. Why are they/we even talking about 2 inches in an entire airplane? This is like 3rd graders quibbling about the length of a worm they’ve found.
    And by the way, nothing is “given” to anyone. Tickets are paid for. The nonsense that the tickets are so cheap is just that: nonsense. Ryanair is cheap. And they provide more room.

  9. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted this: “ God I hate @AmericanAir 737s. I’m not even on a “Project Oasis” and it still sucks. Crowded, tight getting bumped by every person walking by. It’s the 2nd level of hell!”

    To which American replied: “ We do offer seats with more legroom and you can check out the details here…”

    My response: “ Ya I’m in an exit row and leg room ain’t the only issue…it’s width too. Too wide passengers (including myself), with too much crap packed into too narrow a plane.”

    To which they responded: “ We do offer seats with more legroom and you can check out the details here”

    That my friends in a nut shell is what’s wrong with American. Did they even read the tweet? Do they care? Nope it’s all about $$$

  10. This is typical. My favorite approach that big corporations take is salary surveys. They will tell employees that they did a survey of competing companies and adjusted pay scales to be in line with those competitors. My response is why would you want to be just like everyone else, don’t you want to be better than your competitors.

  11. Clearly the answer is to sell the seat IN THE RESTROOM as a revenue seat.
    Also I have no idea why (trigger alert) cisgendered XY male customers doing #1 need all that space, all they need is a urinal based product perhaps called SkyPissoir which could take advantage of the normal angle of attack of the aircraft and just have a small drain slot in the back of the cabin shielded by a curtain. This has the added revenue advantage of causing pax to want to purchase seats nearer the front of the cabin. Coming soon to Frontier / Spirit airlines.

  12. What keeps my disgust of AA perpetually lit is the fact that Parker cannot truthfully answer a question from his own staff about why they’re turning domestic aircraft into cattle cars.

    The only reason the US Air-Management-Cancer team are shrinking everything is PURE GREED. This article says that United and Delta cap their seat counts at 166 or 160 respectively. AA is surpassing them to attempt to make more profit at the expense of its fliers’ comfort.

    Quantity over Quality. And with no unique ideas to implement.

    He is yet another delusional CEO attempting to bend reality to his will like Steve Jobs. But Parker is horribly failing because he doesn’t have a revolutionary product or vision like Steve Jobs did.

    Douglas is putting out a horrible product and convinces no one that it is a better commodity that no one wants.

    I cannot stand this man, his penny-pinching team, their angry employees who take out their frustrations on customers, or the incompetent Board who greenlit these failures. The fact that this failing product has the word American written on it upsets me even more.

  13. Complete utter mess at AA and Doug needs to go!
    Recently took DL and what a joy to have a seat back monitor and quality service. I was told hello and thank you no less than 10 times throughout the flight and actually served a PDB prior to departure on both flight…what a change!

    While I typically use my iPad for movies of my choice it was nice to have the option and I know families enjoyed it too

  14. The problem with AA’s brand position is that unless it’s a fortress hub market, they absolutely must be cheapest on any route with competition, otherwise there’s a good chance they won’t get business.

  15. Good to see I am not the only one despising AA. (Ex Concierge Key, now fortunately in Asia, doing all my flying on Jal ,MH and CX) .
    Get rid of the Word American in your name, you bring shame on the US !
    Penny-pinchers !

  16. Doug Porker is an ass who is driving his stock price to the ground and loosing key partners like LATAM. Years from now he will be studied in business schools everywhere as a key example of how to destroy a company just like Frank Lorenzo and Jeffrey Imelt.

  17. “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.”

    AA had an average mainline LF of 87.5 during Q2-2019. For full year 2018, AA had a average of 183 seats fleetwide-mainline, per departure. Y.E. 2018, AA’s narrowbody fleet of 150 seats or greater has an average of 169 seats per departure. A 87.5% avg LF translates to approx 148 passengers per departure.

    While true the additional seats creates additional revenue opportunity, those added seats also created additional operating costs that must be absorbed even when the additional seats aren’t generating revenue.

    I’m wondering if internal research or studies were conducted that clearly showed legacy AA turning away business as a result of not having airplanes of similar density than a DL or UA? Were (and are) there routes where the carrier consistently generated 100% load factors, season over season, for the duration of a schedule day, that resulted in spilling traffic to competitors? In my mind, that would – absent adding additional flying in the form of additional frames – be the only reason for the level of densification undertaken by the current management.

  18. Lets not even get start about removing business class seats. I can tell you that certainly has backfired. Try looking to buy a seat from ORD TO LHR a week out. Generally completely sold out.

  19. Gary,

    You keep writing the same stuff over and over again. It’s like the fish time I have read this.

    No new material?

  20. @ryby — Indeed, I was searching for something new in this screed and found nothing. Gary’s basic theory, if there is one, seems to be “other airlines do the exact same things AA does, but AA does more of it, so they’re terrible and their business strategy is horrible.” Personally, I fly a lot and have run into these famous toilets on AS and DL, but not yet on AA. I think the other airlines have more of them, at least for the moment. The first time I saw one I had the same impression I have when I use a public restroom that has only an electric hand drier and not paper towels: I’m slightly annoyed for about a half second and then go on with my life. I assume there’s a business reason for the lack of the towels (the company is saving money). At the end of the day, the major USA airlines are shockingly similar; if you’re going to pick one over the other, I suggest doing it for reasons other than lavatory size on certain aircraft.

  21. @brian,

    Although I don’t have my own blog, I have posted quite a few commentaries here and elsewhere that cover the airline industry and “paxex” (industryspeak/shorthand for “passenger experience”) about just how useless these new child sized micro bathrooms (or “lavatories” if using the industry’s term that’s otherwise seldom, if ever, used elsewhere) are.

    In fact, earlier this year I several posted comments about just how awful those rear lavatories in Delta’s Airbus A320-family aircraft are, and how I go out of my way to avoid them – even at 5’8” and an average build.

    I still frequently write about how ridiculously small and narrow economy class seats are aboard any “densified” airplane, and will continue to do so until this orgy of greed perpetrated by soulless, hypocritical ghouls who seldom, if ever, fly in the same disgusting seats or have to use the same loos as they expect others to use.

    But, it’s music to my ears that others such as you are speaking out about just how horrible these way too small lavatories are since I’ve always wondered how if I find them too small to fit into, and deeply resent having to crouch just to get inside, and then once inside, being unable to move or use the pathetically small sink that’s not much bigger than the largest sized iPhones, how much more horrible these despicable and shameful sized lavatories must be for those taller or broader than myself.

    And that’s before even considering just how shameful, immoral – even borderline criminal – these ridiculously small and narrow “no legroom” seats and micro loos are for passengers with reduced mobility.

    And yet, just you wait, some imbecile regurgitate the bald faced lies that passengers are to blame for always cheapskates who brought this on themselves.

    Yeah, right, as if $350-500 roundtrip 30” pitch Main Cabin for NYC-RDU; $400-600 roundtrip 30” pitch Main Cabin for NYC-Florida; or $350-500 roundtrip 30” pitch Main Cabin CLT or RDU-MCO (PLUS bag fees if one does not have “status” or co-branded plastic) is even remotely “cheap”.

    Uh-huh.

    Only to the hedge fund folks and so-called research “analysts” who profit handsomely from everyone else’s misery while they’re zipping around in their private jets or being coddled in 1st/biz class.

  22. AA has said to investors that passengers will pay for everything. You want it , pay for it. Flew AA 2 days ago. Another passenger had complaint about agents taking their bag and still overhead space. You don’t like something go to AA.com and tell them. Telling agents, pilots and flight attendants your complaints makes you feel good but top execs really don’t listen to them. They listen (only a little) to the people spending the money. I’m waiting to see that first airline commercial that says “ You will fit into our bathrooms” .

  23. Simple Question to AA shareholders AND their BOD !
    Dear Doug Parker:

    Why us American always a “FOLLOWER” than a “LEADER”

  24. Dear Doug Parker: shareholder and BOD members;

    Why can’t AMERICAN AIRLINES be a “LEADER” and not a “FOLLOWER” all the time !

  25. Which is why CUSTOMERS given the choice, will fly DELTA. Because they still consider the customer, not (obviously, anyway) just what they can get away with.

  26. And it’s true that I don’t pick an airline based on their bathroom size, but on how much I feel they care about me AND their employees. And suddenly charging for my carryon just seems greedy. As long as the pilots are qualified, I’ll take respect every time…

  27. Jake,

    No need to be personal here. Facts of the matter is that the airlines are all very similar in terms of hard product. Only main difference is that Delta and jet blue have seat back screens on all aircraft.

    The way Gary keeps whining about the same topic every other week one would think only AA had tiny bathrooms or less padded seats or no divider between first class and coach.

    Delta gets away mainly because they have a better operation. Simple as that.

    And for the record, I am not in any form or fashion short. Far from it.

    Cheers!

  28. I need help…I am trying to post a couple of jpegs taken of the toilet on a Delta Airbus (nee Bombardier) 220 flight from BIL to SFO last week. The Rockies are really spectacular when viewed through the window

  29. Parker is a mental midget….He has single handedly run American in to the ground…..basically a 2nd Class airline these days…….It’s amazing he’s hasn’t been asked to leave by the American Board…..I blame them as well….no guts, no vision, no.ba…, well, you know…..toilets are disgusting, seats remind one of a carnival ride, not comfortable nor have adequate room…..He’s never sat there for 4-5 hrs nor will he….

  30. I echo Brian’s comment. Tall passengers are double doomed. In the smaller pitch seats and in the now virtually inaccessible lavatories. I’m 6’7″ and had a hard enough time using the “old” lavatory but the new ones I cant fit in and then use. I have to either wear clothing that I can easily slide down once in closed lavatory or undo belt, zipper etc before entering. There is no room inside to articulate as needed. Its ridiculous. Getting to the point they should just hand out bedpans

  31. Lemme try this again….last week I flew Delta from BIL to SFO with a stop in SLC.

    The SLC to SFO leg was on an Airbus (Bombardier) A-220.

    The aircraft had a window in the port side rear bathroom.

    I have pix to prove it.

    Can anyone supply Mr. Parker’s mailing address?

    Sri abt lack of precision in original post. Late at nite on cell phone…dangerous combination

  32. Heading to Europe next month for a conference. For the last many years I used AA. Not this year. Finally got fed up with their poor service.

  33. As crew, when a pax uses the lav- we joke and say, you can only wash one hand, think about it before you go in.

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