Rumor: American to Admit Defeat, Give Passengers More Space in Coach

In late 2017 American Airlines rolled out a new coach product. It featured less space than ever between seats (not just in coach, but less space for extra legroom coach and even for first class). There was less recline, too, and no seat back video. They found space for more seats by squeezing inches out of the lavatories. And they found space by taking padding out of the seats.

Not only was this new interior what’s going into their new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, but they’ve been taking more comfortable Boeing 737-800s and ripping out those interiors to match what I’ve sometimes called “Torquemada configuration.”

And they’re brgining on new Airbus A321neos that will have a similar setup, and which serves as the basis for retrofitting their existing A321s also. In other words, this is the new domestic configuration for American Airlines.

However this is one uncomfortable product, and not just in coach. The seats themselves are tough to take for flights over 3 hours, and they’re being used on seven hour flights. First class seats even don’t have proper underseat storage, and have a bar that protrudes from the seat back.

It’s no surprise that American realizes they have a problem earning a revenue premium for a product that doesn’t deserve one, and in fact their financials show they lose money flying and only make money as a company from selling frequent flyer miles to banks.

There are rumors swirling in social media that American may do something about it, and reverse course (slightly) on what is internally referred to as ‘Project Oasis’ taking existing planes and turning them into torture tubes.

JonNYC who usually has excellent sources weighs in to suggest he had heard such things several months ago and that it’s possible something is in the works.

One version of the rumor has them removing a single row of coach seats, restoring 31 inches of pitch (distance from seat back to seat back) in economy. Another version has them removing a single row of Main Cabin Extra (extra legroom coach) to accomplish the same thing.

When American’s plan for their domestic fleet was first announced it was revealed they intended to go as low as 29 inches from seat back to seat back with some seats. The ensuing outcry caused them to back off and hold the line at 30 inches (down from a traditional 31 inches). They did this by reducing the number of extra legroom coach rows. Aside from exit rows deemed ‘Main Cabin Extra’ they have just 3 rows of extra legroom seats at the front of economy on the Boeing 737 MAX and reconfigured 737-800s.

Taking away even more extra legroom coach seats would be a huge problem. Aside from customers who book a month or two out there’s little chance to get one of those. That means their valuable customers won’t have a shot of a slightly less bad economy experience when not buying (their degraded) first class product. It’s already super tough to get, this would make it near-impossible.

An extra inch at each standard coach seat would help, but the seats still lack sufficient padding for all but the shortest of flights and still lack seat back video (which matters little to me but customers in general love, which is why Delta is committed to them).

Ultimately the most common rumor is of a slight tweak to American’s worst product, not a run at making the product better than average.

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, 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. That will e too little to late. From my less frequently-flying friends, im hearing how Delta now serves a meal in coach.

  2. Flew home Wednesday in a 738 w/seat back videos that didn’t work for the majority of seats up front. Mine was even missing the ‘entertainment’ option on the screen itself. For a change, I actually managed to get the live tv to work (kinda sorta…kept buffering) on my iPad. The snack basket up front is a joke-very limited choices & no restocking once its been picked over. Went out on Sunday on one of the beat to heck A320’s that only had 3 rows up front (down from the 6 when I’d checked in on Saturday-got a call on the way to the airport wanting to know if I’d give up my paid F seat for a voucher & ride in the back) & the only way to get anything under the seat in front was to lay it completely flat. These were 2 1-hour flights each, thankfully. The transcon flight I booked last week was booked, in F, on DL.

    If Discount Dougie & his minions can’t figure out that they actually PASSED the breaking point a long time ago by now, I’m not sure what would get through to them anymore.

  3. When will one of the big 3 step forward and sell itself as the airline that wants your flight to be a safe and COMFORTABLE one? Make it a known fact that sure, the more comfy and spacious seat might cost you $15 or $20 more, but hey (like the L’Oreal ad says) aren’t you worth it? Appeal to the consumers’ ego. Create an image of a slightly higher quality product, like Costco compared to Sam’s Club, and deliver the goods as promised. It can’t be that difficult to do!

  4. AA tried this with the “more room throughout coach” program post-9/11. It didn’t go well.

  5. Let’s be honest; AA’s in-flight experience has sucked for a while, but its frequent flyer program used to compensate for it.

  6. Enough of the cattle car effect! We’re paying decent money and deserve to have a comfortable seat with breathing room! Going abroad makes you realize how cheated American (national) people are – it’s a sad commentary about valuing customers over the pursuits of profit maximums!

  7. If American foregos its densification plans, then stay tuned for the other shoe to drop. Profitability projections won’t change. American will find other ways to gouge us.

  8. AA is no different than most other companies, they are completely out of touch with Americans and their wants and needs. Have they looked at the SIZE of most passengers? Seriously, Americans are BIG, we have bigger bodies and a very large percentage of the population is overweight, but we are also just BIGGER overall. I feel like a giant in other countries sometimes, in group trip, the five of us looked massive upside the locals. We don’t want to be crammed into seats for children. Sure, it’d be great if everyone was weight appropriate but since we aren’t, making your passengers have a miserable experience doesn’t leave them with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Give them room to move slightly, breathe and make it a somewhat comfortable flight and they’ll be back….make it a miserable, cramped, uncomfortable flight and they’ll wonder why they paid you instead of taking that spirit flight for $99!

  9. I flew First on Tuesday and could not get my carry on under the seat. Food was inedible and service practically non existent. Add to that the horrendous seat availability to Europe in Business and guess what, I just booked Delta for my next flight.

  10. I mean technically, it’s not more space. It’s the same amount of space before the 737 MAX debuted.

    But I’m sure AA will spin it to be a huge “We listen to our customers” press fluff.

  11. If American reduces the space for regular coach I’ll leave them for another (United) after using my 500,000 miles I have remaining in our two accounts.

    I will be sure to book business or first with those miles. The seats are already way to close. I have two sons who are 6’ 7” and 6’4”. They don’t fit in the regular coach as it is. Please American widen your seat space don’t shrink it. You will loose 6 very good passengers.

  12. We can only hope this is true. If it is true its a small step in the right direction. They still need to redesign and rip out the Oasis F seats so people can put a bag under the seats. Its absolutely horrible engineering and I’d be willing to bet they didn’t do any real testing on the mock up seats to check for bag space. They also could look at changing where the outlet is in the arm rest.

    They are absolutely losing premium passengers to competitors due to Project Oasis. No one wants to fly on these birds if given the choice between an existing 737-8 or a retrofitted Oasis bird. They can try to say the seats are more comfortable, they are NOT more comfortable.

  13. trust me, I am No Fan of Doug Parker and His Management Team but suggestions by Armchair QBs that really do NOT know what they are talking about is even worse. The Majority of the travelling Public will NOT pay extra for Anything in Todays World….they expect in ‘handed to them”. As a CK at AA I hear lots of stories from Employees where Ex Plat members have a sense of entitlement that really ISN’T justified. I know several AA Employees very well and the Stories they tell are absolutely astounding .I have seen Good and Bad with all the Airlines over the Years.. Parker is an Idiot, that We know….treats His Employees like Garbage and his customers with contempt. AA may be The Biggest,certainly not The Worst in any category outside of Bad Management that Only the Board of Directors can answer for. As a Shareholder (not Me) I wonder How Long will You Allow Bozo and the Rest of the Circus Clowns to drive down the Value of a Once Great Airline. This Airline needs to seriously show Every One of their Leadership Team Out the Door and put People in Position that Know what they are Doing, because currently They Have Major Issues.

  14. Why does American continue to jump off the hi-dive board when there is no water in the pool? I’ve been lucky to have an elite status, and usually get a better seat, but I cannot imagine not having that. The only redemption is that their frequent flyer program remains immensely better than Delta’s (maybe I should say that in public). But that have made some negative changes to that in the past few months (and I’m not talking about the minimum spend).

  15. So the discount airline experience, a la Spirit, isn’t working? Awe, come on, It was super duper great idea! Not! You cannot offer a sardine can experience and charge what AA charges. Besides, I don’t fly AA, anymore. Last flight was 11/17, it was ok. But why should anyone fly AA? For me, it really sucks, as I own AA stock. For the company to have stockholders who don’t want use its product says a tremendous amount. Parker needs to be dumped. The Board needs to grow some gonads say here’s the door!

  16. Yawn. The majority of people are still gonna book the cheapest flight no matter what.

    At least if they do this Gary won’t be able to post 6 “articles” a week complaining about AA 737Max seating.

  17. If AA is cheaper, I’d be ok with a product like that from Frontier or Spirit. But they’re not cheaper, so why would I pick them unless I was in CLT, PHX, or DFW?

  18. Someone said earlier that the airlines are out of touch with Americans. I think AA is out of touch with the people who post on message boards like this, but they fully understand that the vast majority Americans will bypass comfort, safety, and being treated like a human in order to save $15. And as long as that’s true, we’re going to keep getting a torture tube experience.

  19. Interesting to see Delta and United pivoting to a more comfortable experience – would make sense that AA would need to follow, but as they have already begun rolling out OASIS there will continue to be elite attrition as their pivot won’t happen overnight.

    I’ve already had to take a more inconvenient flight from LAX to DC to avoid the MAX, but I am only doing that as an EXP that will secure lifetime Plat by the end of the year (in hopes that in the future they offer a product that is appealing to me as a higher fare paying business traveler). The bummer for me is that I travel internationally and find their business class first rate (although I believe they are now cutting the number of biz seats on those planes, so that may become irrelevant).

    I’m going to wait it out until the end of the year to see what happens with AA, Delta and United. As of now I’ll be defecting somewhere, but would certainly like to stick with AA. They have just pushed it too far for me and what they’re doing to their planes (both in coach and in F, which I often buy up to) doesn’t align with my priorities (comfort being a big one) anymore.

  20. I used to fly AA a lot, now it’s my last option, after Delta, Southwest, Jetblue, and United, more or less in that order.

  21. Reduced seat pitch increases passengers stress

    Onboard an aircraft there are pregnant women, elderly people, handicapped passengers and so on

  22. @Gary: ” they lose money flying and only make money as a company from selling frequent flyer miles to banks.”

    This is not actually true. The division of revenues is arbitrary. If, for example, frequent flyer resales were banned, system prices would adjust by increasing fares to a new equilibrium.

    The example uses an accounting view of revenue attribution, which is some kind of ‘identity’, not an economic evaluation of the value of each activity.

  23. @L3 – I’m not talking about miles earned by flying, where arguably the split in terms of deferred revenue is arbitrary (the drafters of ASC 606 would disagree but in any case the new accounting rules boost the amount of money AA is recognizing for flying redemption seats by over $200mm) but rather sale of miles to banks. That’s not an arbitrary division. American acknowledges that the amount they book as marketing revenue from those sales isn’t ‘100% profit’ but it isn’t far off.

  24. Count me as an AA EXP who last year earned close to 20000 EQDs and flew approximately 155,000 EQMs yet haven’t booked or set foot on an American Airlines plane in 2019 nor am I planning to at this point. There management is so out of touch with reality and have made the product both onboard and at the airport so bad that I have no interest in flying them. Not to mention that upgrades to first class rarely ever clear since almost all of my flights are sold out in first class at least 2 to 4 weeks in advance. I would rather pay a few extra dollars for a more comfortable seat with inflight entertainment on a competitor than fly the torture chambers that American has been rolling out over the last several years. Even with connections I would rather fly Delta, JetBlue, or Southwest.

    American Airlines management has made some really poor fleet decisions in my opinion while Delta has made absolutely brilliant fleet decisions which is why Delta is able to command a revenue premium. Delta for narrow body aircraft typically flies an Airbus fleet with 18″ seats and while pitch may not be amazing it isn’t as bad as American. The A220 with its amazing seat width of over 18.5″ and 2+3 configuration is far more desirable than the 737Max and 737-800 that American flies not to mention the inflight entertainment screens provided on all aircraft. For their wide body fleet, they also went with primarily Airbus A330s and A350s which also offer once again 18″ seats with ok but not amazing pitch while American uses the 777 and 787 as there primary aircraft with seat width of only approximately 17″ which for long haul and ultra longhair flights is just a miserable experience.

    Since American has upgraded a good portion of there fleet already, they are sadly stuck with these inferior aircraft for years to come and while the economics may have been favorable on the Boeing aircraft that American purchased based on 9 across seating on the 787 and 10 across seating on the 777, I would take a guess that those economics are inferior to the A330neo in an 8 across config and the A350 in a 9 across configuration. While many airlines have ordered the 787 and 777 in the 9 and 10 abreast configuration mentioned above, the big difference is that Americans tend to be larger then individuals from the rest of the world so while the product may be okay for many international airlines who do not cater to Americans, for an airline that caters to the population of the United States such as American Airlines, the seats being offered are just downright torture for the majority of the population.

  25. @Gary: If AA reduced the miles it sold to banks by 100% would everything else remain the same?

    The accountant says ‘yes’, so he deducts the current profit from AA’s income statement. AA now makes a loss and eventually goes out of business. It is a simple set of arithmetic identities. It has no economic basis as an equilibrium. It is arbitrary.

    He is obviously wrong. The economic optimum is changed and the system adjusts (e.g. to increase fares, fees, alter operations, etc.). AA need not be making a loss.

  26. Just returned from a international long haul flight in business both ways on American. What a great hard product and the soft product was decent. It seems a lot of effort goes into these profitable long haul routes. Premium economy from the looks of it was nice. The question I have is why is American even flying “unprofitable” non premium domestic routes if they don’t make money. Take RadioShack and sears as an example of how not to run a business. The only logic behind running unprofitable routes is the frequent flyers who benefit from the network who will spend a lot of money on the premium transcontinental routes or international routes.

  27. I ride Delta every week, the service is much better but don’t think that you’re getting some magical free space under their seats either. The screen box prevents just about any size bag from going under the seat in front of you. The second you try to slide it under your thighs to get some leg room your reminded it needs to be under the seat.

  28. This may be too little, too late.

    In a competitive market, it’s much harder to regain (or gain…) a new customer than to retain the ones you have. That’s business 101. FF incentive programs are supposed to help, but AA has also gutted that so it’s no longer a competitive aadvantage.

    And there are union issues looming.

    AA needs a real chief executive that understands business.

  29. @L3. Gary no doubt means ceteris paribus (which is sprinkled in every economics textbook I have read.

  30. Certainly not:
    ” they lose money flying and only make money as a company from selling frequent flyer miles to banks.”
    That describes the end state. AA can’t make money flying.

    Re-read the original post.

  31. I bailed on AA after an absolutely abysmal 2017 (ExPlat/3.8 Million Miler) and defected to United for 2018. DL doesn’t work well due to inconvenient hub locations from DFW (MSP, ATL, DTW). Didn’t have high expectations for UA but enjoyed a genuinely better experience in 2018 as 1K than as an ExPlat on AA the previous three years. Recently had an unexpected overnight in DEN due to IRROPS and UA took care of me. Even got a phone call from a customer service rep a couple weeks later to see if they handled it to my satisfaction. NEVER had that on AA. AA has seriously devalued the ExPlat experience. It used to be fantastic (been ExPlat for over a decade). Maybe now AA only care about CK’s. Whatever. I only have about $18-28K spend and 110K EQM’s annually. UA seems to covet that demographic far better than AA. I’m happy with UA.

  32. Why post stories like this when it’s clearly a rumor at best at this point? Just getting folks stirred up and speculating….who cares until an official announcement is made?

  33. In the meantime, we’re all getting emails from AA to “Cast a ballot for Aadvantage for the Freddie Awards”. Talk about chutzpah!

  34. Many of the posters on this blog seem to live in an alternative universe. I fly all the major airlines almost weekly, and the domestic product differences in coach between AA, DL, UA and AS are shockingly small. They’ve all obviously copied each other and do almost exactly the same things. I’d give DL the slight nod in product because they have screens and slightly better free snacks (like a Kind bar instead of a bag of no-name pretzels). The amount of money I’d be willing to pay DL for this “service enhancement”? Exactly zero. And DL is sometimes a little worse than its competitors. Like Gary has written ad nauseum about AA new lavs. Have you tried using the back lavs on DL’s redone A320s? I’ll have to travel with a tape measure the next time, but I swear they’re smaller than the new 737 lavs.

    Bottomline is the reason the product is what it is is because the bean counters have figured out this is the profit maximizing strategy. WN marches to its own drummer (not particularly successfully at the moment), B6 tries to do things a little differently but finds itself become more like the major carriers, and Spirit and Frontier have reinvented cheapo flying. Otherwise, it’s a largely homogeneous product. You can delude yourself into believing otherwise, but if you get out and fly all these airlines you’ll almost certainly return to reality.

  35. @L3 – if American stopped selling miles to banks how exactly would that lead to higher fares? You think that AA is artificially suppressing fares but could just raise them, because waht exactly?

  36. One thing I have discovered which may enhance the legacy 3 experience for those of you in smaller cities. I try to put myself on Embraer flights. Their seats and spacing are just more comfortable these days. Who would have thought that would develop.

  37. @Gary: “if American stopped selling miles to banks how exactly would that lead to higher fares?”

    It wouldn’t necessarily, I listed that as one system adjustment. If it happens, the mechanism is reduced supply in a market with less than infinitely elastic demand. Think of it as the elimination of a per-unit subsidy (revenue from miles sales).

    @Gary: “You think that AA is artificially suppressing fares but could just raise them, because waht exactly?”

    I don’t. I think that if their average cost curves shift up, their prices go up, and traffic goes down. The exact amount depending on the price elasticity of demand. Before and after the cost increase AA was attempting to maximize profits. Nothing artificial.

    Compare both situations with the accountant’s answer. “If we sell X units then an increase of 10% in prices will increase revenues 10%”. Wrong.

  38. I will fly AA only on Miles and non-revenue tickets only. All my revenue tickets are on other carriers. That’s will not change until they reconfigure their aircrafts pre – Max 8. The other issue is that their hub at MIA has some of the worst customer service I have ever encountered. Rude non-caring employees at check-in. Managers that don’t know the rules.

  39. Built in screens are such a great distraction, makes one forget how tight the space is. The fact that they removed them show how idiotic they are: now people instead of plopping down and watch a movie, they are bored and focus on how bad the cabin is. And for fans of Bring Your Own Video Device — the number of people doing it is tiny, vs. the vast majority when there’s built-in screens. Just take a look around next time you fly.

  40. “Americans will bypass comfort, safety, and being treated like a human in order to save $15. And as long as that’s true, we’re going to keep getting a torture tube experience.”

    I think this is mainly true. I don’t blame anyone for that. The larger question is why? Why do we have to stretch every penny in what is supposed to be such a great economy?

    (because it isn’t/wealth disparity/workplace age discrimination in an aging populace/health care costs/etc. etc)

    As long as THAT’S true, we are going to to have a torture tube experience as a country. If everyone had a little more confidence, they might spend the extra. Europeans (rightly or wrongly) have a greater social safety net and different discretionary spending habits.

  41. As long as the kind of statics Robert Isom talked about at investor and media day 08/27/2017 continue to remain in play…..”Only 13% of AA flyers fly more than once per year” – OR – stated the other way – 87% or approximately 126,000,000 AA passengers fly once a year or less. And because that group of 126,000,000 very infrequent flyers contributes 50% of AA’s revenue, things probably aren’t going to be changing much anytime soon. And recall a previous comment by AA senior leadership….”there are a lot of customers who want a lie-flat seat to fly when they go overseas, and are willing to pay a premium for a better product, but that doesn’t change the fact that 50% of the company’s revenue comes from passengers “for whom air travel is largely a commodity.”

    To that 50% of revenue group, it has always been and always will be PRICE. If you are only going to fly once this year, you really don’t place a high level of importance on what type of aircraft it is or how old it is, if it has a refurbished interior, if it has IFE screens or not, or what the airlines frequent flyer program is like, it’s all about the price.

    Welcome to America, that land of the cheapo – where it’s all about getting from Point A to Point B for as little as possible.

  42. @John: Great comment.

    Does anyone have numbers on what percent of AA domestic first class is “paid for that seat” vs. FF miles or free upgrades, etc? Thks.

  43. Wow!

    I love watching the “kool aid” drinkers who keep insisting that passengers don’t care about row pitch (legroom) and a half decent value proposition when they cite TWA’s or Anerican’s past failed attempts at offering more legroom throughout coach as the “justification” for 30-31” row pitch being perfectly acceptable – when in fact, it’s NEITHER acceptable NOR a failure when executed by talented managers.

    Here’s why:

    David Neeleman and Dave Barger’s vision for JetBlue WORKED, folks!

    The airline (which sadly, of late, has become beholden/hostage to the degradation to fatten profits for the fat cats only crowd), was a rousing success until the past few years of its transition under Wall Street’s patsy towards becoming a Delta-clone with a slightly better overall product (alas, choking under the albatross of fees, fees, fees and more fees – plus the sham/fraud that is Basic Economy).

    Just the same, JetBlue’s original “Bringing Humanity Back to Flying” with more legroom in coach (34” pitch in standard rows; 38-43” in Even More Space rows) WAS SUCCESSFUL and is the formula behind that airline’s success – along with other passenger friendly value propositions including free LiveTV and unlimited free snack baskets.

    So, please! STOP perpetuating myths and half truths that amount to saying “passengers are to stingy or too stupid” to care about a half decent value proposition; NO bag fees; reasonable change fees; row pitch; seatback IFE or unlimited goodies from snack baskets, NOTHING could be further from the truth.

    JetBlue’s success in NYC, and at NYC’s LEAST accessible or favored domestic airport at that, simply proves otherwise.

    Anyone who insists otherwise is conveniently citing failed airlines (TWA, American) that were already in their bankruptcy death spirals that were beset with years of bad management and bad labor relations while failing to include the success of JetBlue in their historical analysis of the airline industry and consumer behavior for companies that have good managers and that seek to include the consumer as every bit as important of a constituent group instead of just bankers and large institutional shareholders.

  44. “I don’t care do you?”
    From a famed philosopher

    Who flies American anyway in their right mind or you had to?
    That was something you did pre Parker years ago when it was a real airline with a substantial frequent flyer program

  45. While I am just as frustrated as anyone else here – I get it. American is too big to offer a better standard economy product to gain market share. Even assuming they had the ability to clearly demonstrate their standard Econ product is better to the majority of its customers, It’s just impossible with their fleet size. Many of their customers, you know the ones that sit in the rows after the exit rows that we often forget about are people who travel 1-2x a year and pick the cheapest fare. Even if they were educated to know AA was more comfortable and the reason why they are $10 more, they would likely fly on a non-upgraded plane and become completely disloyal.

    So AA takes the risk of loosing a small fraction of people who can fly on UL and DL without a major hub issue and attract as many of the majority of leisure travelers who would fly in a cargo hold to save $10. Everyone on here would pay $10 more for two inches of pitch, a screen, and a decent meal, but the vast majority of flyers who fly once a year don’t care.

  46. Can’t think of anything more cynical than airlines deliberately making Economy hell in order to compel people to pay for upgrades to Y+, J or F (where the money is made).

    Yet that’s what many airlines, not just American, are doing.

    Hopefully we are close to the low point and things will start ticking upwards again.

  47. @Alan: Airlines are giving the public exactly what they want. Start your own “Alan’s Uncynical Airline” and see how many people will buy your coach with extra leg room. You’ll be toast.

    Remember: Ryanair is the end state.

  48. Too little too late – how many premium customers have they driven away?

    It is true that in coach very few people want to pay more these days for a flight but ripping out all the seatback TVs when your competitors still provide IFE on many services is idiotic. Doig it in a first class as well, doubly so. Doing it when your domestic operations are chaotic and your flights are frequently late (despite a nasty habit of boarding early)? Insanity.

    It’s so persistently strange to me that they’ve created a decent international premium product, with flagship lounges and decent reverse herringbone seats (on most planes at least), while utterly destroying their domestic brand, in all classes.

    They should look at whatbdelta is doing on the new 220s – more comfortable seats with IFE – to answer the revenue premium question.

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