If You Don’t Mind American’s New Domestic Product, Your Standards Are Too Low

Brett Snyder, the Cranky Flier flew American Airlines from Puerto Vallarta to Los Angeles and declared “no complaints whatsoever” about the new American Airlines ‘Oasis’ interior. I find Cranky Flier to be a must-read but in this case I say his standards are too low.

This was my very first experience on an Oasis-configured 737. That’s the one with 172 seats that had people ranting and raving about how horrible it was. I had no complaints whatsoever…

Legroom on these seats was about what I’d expect in any regular coach seat… Just know that if you’re flying in coach on American 737s, the new Oasis-configuration is great.

For the uninitiated, when US Airways management took over American Airlines, the carrier’s Boeing 737s had 150 seats. That was quickly bumped up to 160, and then a new interior was rolled out with 172 seats. All 737s the airline is continuing to operate get this new interior.

To cram in more seats the airline had to reduce the space each passenger gets. That’s true not just in coach but first class, too. They’ve added bigger overhead bins, and smaller lavatories. They removed seat back entertainment screens. And in order to accomplish the ‘densification’ project they use seats with less padding so that the seats take up less space.

The Soft Bigotry Of Low Expectations

The famous phrase “the soft bigotry of low expectations” is credited to George W. Bush when he was campaigning for President in 2000, in a speech to the NAACP (though it was written by speechwriter Michael Gerson). And it’s taken on greater significance since then, in matters both big and small. It sure seems apt when thinking about Brett’s review of American’s Oasis domestic interiors.

To be sure the new standard domestic product isn’t bad in an historical sense. Louis C.K. reminds us that you’re sitting in a chair in the sky. Compared to what travel used to entail, Oasis isn’t a hardship: “New York to California in five hours? That used to take 30 years. And a bunch of you would die on the way there.” So let’s be clear, tou’re still “partak[ing] in the miracle of human flight.”

And if that sums up your expectations, absolutely, American’s domestic Oasis product meets those. However,

  • You can’t open a laptop and work, the way you can flying Southwest (which American’s CEO refers to as “the cattle car”.

  • The seats are hard as a rock.

  • Not everyone cares about seat back entertainment, but it’s still a nice to have, Delta is committed to it, and United is adding it to older aircraft. Watching something on a phone isn’t the same as on a seat back screen, not everyone has enough personal devices for the family (especially with kids!), and if you’re watching something on your personal device that makes it tough to multitask and turn flight time into productive time.

  • There are no galley ovens in coach, which means no hot meals on 3000 mile domestic flights or some South America routes.

Cranky flew Los Angeles – Puerto Vallarta which is about the limit of my toleration, however American flies this seat on much longer missions. The hard chair with less padding begins to take its toll at two to three hours.

From a design and cabin feel perspective he offers that “it looked good on the inside thanks to the Boeing Sky Interior” but it should be noted that while Airbus A321neos are delivered from the factory with mood lighting, they’re rolling out the standard domestic reconfiguration to existing Airbus narrowbody planes and an airline spokesperson confirms to me, “retrofitted A321s are upgraded to white, non-mood LED lighting.”

Airbus A321neo interior, credit: American Airlines

Customers Can Do Much Better

If the question is merely, ‘can we deal with Oasis on a 1200 mile flight?’ then ok sure. But the airline business is competitive, and customers can do so much better. That’s why the product is such a blunder.

Delta offers screens. United reportedly is adding them to older aircraft that do not have them, an idea that American executives mock. Southwest’s standard seat gives two inches more space than American’s. So on a competitive itinerary, American’s product often isn’t.

This New Interior Lacks Enough Extra Legroom Coach Seats

Outside of the exit rows, American’s Boeing 737-800s and 737 MAXs have just three rows of Main Cabin Extra seats with additional legroom. One of those rows is the bulkhead, though there isn’t even a real partition between first and economy on this plane.

That makes Main Cabin Extra seats tough to get if you’re booking within a couple of weeks of travel, especially if you don’t want a middle seat or need two seats together. It’s tough to escape ‘regular coach’ if you have status or are willing to pay.

Notably though even Main Cabin Extra has less space than before, but the 3 extra inches matter even more when the rest of coach is worse.

First Class Suffers, Too

Oasis wasn’t a redesign based on the assumption that people in back just care about a cheap ticket and will take whatever experience they’re offered, the densification and degraded passenger experience extends to the premium cabin as well.

Cranky acknowledges “[f]irst Class may be a different story, but I can’t speak to that.” First class on the aircraft was so bad that after retrofitting planes they have to re-retrofit them again to correct design defects.

American’s “Project Kodiak” may be giving first class passengers under seat storage back (something taken away by Oasis), but it’s still a hard seat and a tight fit. The airline’s older Boeing 737-800s had 40 inches from seat back to seat back, this product isn’t just about tight seating in coach it takes 4 inches away from first class too.

Oasis Is Bad Business For An Airline That Needs To Earn A Revenue Premium

There’s no question that Cranky Flier is right, American Airlines offers a product that will get you from point A to point B and there are worse discomforts. There’s more space between seats than on Spirit Airlines, though of course Spirit offers ‘The Big Front Seat’ super cheap and that is a more comfortable experience.

However American’s new domestic coach product is worse than Delta’s. It’s worse than JetBlue’s. It’s worse than Southwest’s. The customer experience of this product wasn’t a priority. The airline didn’t bother building a cabin mockup before declaring this their standard product and rolling it out. Airline CEO Doug Parker didn’t even try it himself before the decision was made – or even until it was flying for six months.

American Airlines has higher costs than competitors and more debt. It can’t just do ‘as well’ as other airlines, relying on operating a lot of flights and earning a proportional share of traffic, filling more cheap seats than before. If it does that it will underperform the industry.

Given American’s cost structure it needs to earn a revenue premium. It needs to be the preferred carrier, that customers will choose even when it’s more expensive. That’s doubly true when domestic flying (and close-in international that receives a domestic product) is almost all the business there is.

Even when international travel recovers, and international business travel recovers, international business class passengers are also domestic flyers. In fact most travelers fly domestically more than they do internationally, and they do most shorter flights in back. Their experience with American forms the impression that will tell them whether the airline’s business class is the one they’d want to fly when it comes down to paying top dollar for long distance comfort – or not.

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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  1. While I despise the race-to-the-bottom, save-a-buck mentality that drives decisions like this, and give AA no credit for what I’m about to say, I can’t help but be optimistic about the densification trend we are seeing. The elephant in the room is climate change, which is a real problem where air travel has a massive, outsized impact. Densification really makes a difference in the carbon impact of air travel, and also helps the average man afford to work, see their families, etc. I hate the airlines and their mentality, and again give them no credit, but I can’t help but realize that overall this trend is good for humanity.

  2. I’ve been flying AA for 40 years and the airline is no more. It is the illegitimate child of America West and US Airways. As a Platinum Executive, the airline is a disaster on every imaginable level due to arrogant and greedy management that is lost in America. Employee morale is as low as low can go, the in-flight experience is stripped down to the bare, uncomfortable necessities with power ports on maybe only half of the flights and the AAdvantage program is an overly complicated mess. Without new leadership, this budget carrier is doomed.

  3. @ Roger. To help prevent a discharged cell phone disappointment when flying on American Airlines, I purchased an external cell phone battery charger available for about $10-30 dollars.

  4. Aa is getting its revenue “premium” from having 12 more seats to sell on a similsr-sized aircraft than UA or DL.

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