The most successful businesses try to understand their customers, figure out how to add more value, sometimes even before customers themselves know what they need. Executives work to understand a product, how it’s experienced by customers, even before it’s introduced to customers. That’s the very opposite of doing the least amount possible for customers.
Doug Parker spoke with employees American Airlines ‘Crew News’ this past week, and he seemed to reveal which approach they take at American Airlines.
American Airlines Thought They Could Live Without Offering Seat Power
US Airways was late to add internet to its planes. They didn’t think they would make more money offering internet, so why should they do it? Doug Parker explained at the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Aviation Symposium in 2012 that they only decided to move forward when they saw they were losing ticket sales from customers who wouldn’t fly an airline without being able to stay connected.
It seems he admits to not learning his lesson. When America West took over US Airways, they actually took power out of planes that offered it because that would reduce weight and save fuel. Parker suggests he doesn’t remember why the legacy US Airways fleet mostly doesn’t offer seat power (“for.. some reason.. cost, I’m sure”) and says “in retrospect, we should’ve started earlier [installing seat power], we thought we could live with this, probably shouldn’t have tried so at any rate we’re going as fast as we can now.”
Parker liked that when US Airways consistently offered no power, customers knew that and had to have their devices charged. Now he thinks the problem isn’t lack of power per se but the inconsistent product so customers don’t know not to expect power. (!)
It’s really a problem when some do and some don’t. People can’t even know with confidence. One thing when they used to know I’m on US Airways I need to be charged before I get on. You don’t want to have people thinking that but at least people knew that, now it’s I’m on American I was going to be powered, I don’t have enough power, and they get upset.
And since as of September they had no maintenance program in place for existing seat power outlets but were ‘working on’ developing one, I bring a UK power adapter to use even on planes I expect to offer plugs.
American’s CEO Has Never Flown the Plane With Tiny Lavatories and More Seats Than Ever
At the end of November I flew American’s inaugural Boeing 737 MAX flight. That’s the plane which reduced legroom in first class and main cabin extra, and which has just 30 inches of pitch (the distance from seat back to seat back) in the rest of economy.
The seats don’t recline as much as before, and they don’t have seat back video screens either. They do have power and Viasat satellite internet which didn’t work well when I flew, and that I’ve heard many complaints about since, though it’s likely I only hear about the complaints and not the successes.
However the biggest problem with this planes, in my opinion, is the tiny lavatories with even smaller sinks.
In Q&A with Parker a flight attendant asked about the lavatories.
- Flight attendant: “The doors open in the lavs and nobody can get in or out. i don’t know if you’ve been on it”
Doug Parker: “I have not been on the MAX.”
Flight attendant: “If you gain an ounce you’re not coming down the aisle i assure you.” (laughter) “but what are they revamping anything on it or is this something that it is what it is?”
Doug Parker: “tell me what the issue is again, it’s the bathrooms?”
Flight attendant: “In the aft of the aircraft the two bathroom doors open up and they lock into each other. so now you got people coming out of the bathroom into the galley and then we have to shut the doors, let them out, and let the next two people to use the restroom… and the sink you get soaking wet because it’s so small you can’t get your hands in there, so it really has some design flaws”
Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines, has never been on their new plane with their new standard interior which generated a flurry of controversy since April causing the airline to back off a plan to offer even less seat pitch.
The executive team talked about possibly changing the doors on the lav going forward (a ‘cutover’ not a ‘retrofit’), but that they chose the ones they did for customers.
Parker joked (!) about how customers were having water splashed up on them when turning the water on because the sinks were so small. They’ve reduced water pressure to compensate. And they claim that customers like the 737 MAX more than other aircraft which doesn’t say much about their other aircraft.
Failing to Put Yourself in Your Customers’ Shoes Explains a Lot of the Airline’s Problems
American puts a single-minded premium on on-time departures, believing those are highly controllable and the major determinant of on-time arrivals. However the pressure they put on employees to get there means that other service elements fall by the wayside. D0 is considered an excuse for almost any other decision, D0 trumps any customer concern. Yet they don’t even do a good job with D0.
It’s why we sometimes see first class seats go empty when passengers remain on the upgrade list. Or why some gate agents won’t process upgrades for customers unless they’re waiting at the gate.
American investments heavily in its lounges. Customers spend for those lounges. But instead of being able to wait in the club and work before a flight they need to be at the gate or risk losing an upgrade, or find the flight is boarding prior to the time posted on their boarding pass (risking not having overhead bin space for their bags).
Boarding early is frequently thought of as a D0 issue but for larger narrowbodies the issue is IT. They board 35 minutes prior to departure on Airbus A321s and 757s for instance, but haven’t ever updated the IT to tell their customers that. It wasn’t a priority — compared to doing the tech updates for basic economy, revenue-based mileage earning, devaluing award charts or myriad other cost savers and revenue raisers. Communicating smoothly with customers didn’t make the cut.
Wasting my time by the way is the number one thing American has done to kill my loyalty more than basic economy or changes to the loyalty program.
In Order to Generate a Revenue Premium, Put Your Customers at the Forefront of Everything You Do
American to their credit has tried to put employees front and center, believing that well treated employees will treat customers well and earn their loyalty. However it was clear at Media and Investor Day that there isn’t an overall mission or purpose being communicated to employees, just better pay and benefits.
Relying on second order effects for employees to be nice isn’t enough in any case, products and systems decisions need to be made with customers in mind, understanding how they interact with the airline — how they want to interact with an airline — and more importantly understanding what customers value most and finding ways to continually deliver that better and better.
Do that and seat power would have seemed an imperative years ago. And actually experiencing the product would seem a must.