I have absolutely no qualms flying a Boeing 737 MAX once it returns to commercial service in about six weeks. This plane is safe to fly.
The MAX now compares data from both angle of attack sensors and if there’s a material difference between the sensors then the MCAS system will be inhibited throughout the flight. The system only activates once per incident, eliminating repetitive nose-down pitch. And pilots maintain elevator authority for the aircraft.
Runaway stab trim is inhibited automatically, no longer requiring use of a non-normal checklist. But pilots are receiving explicit training on the issues that occurred with the MAX previously nonetheless.
And make no mistake, these are rare issues to begin with – American Airlines never had a single issue with trim or angle of attack in over 7000 flights, and never had angle of attack issues in over 700,000 hours of Boeing 737-800 flying and it’s the same part.
That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to flying the 737 MAX on American Airlines! This is because of the interior of the cabin and not because of the safety of the aircraft.
- Less room between seats
- Thinner, less padded seats
- No seat back video
- This is even true in Main Cabin Extra and first class
American has been removing seat back screens from its existing Boeing 737s, too, as it standardizes the interiors of its cabins in a new less comfortable configuration. When US Airways management took over at American Airlines, Boeing 737s had 150 seats. The new configuration has 172 seats. And unfortunately so far about 65% of American’s 324 Boeing 737s have the new cabin.
In a question and answer session with flight attendants about the Boeing 737 MAX last week, American Airlines President Robert Isom said “this aircraft is going to be equal to anything anybody else has out there in terms of seat pitch, in terms of creature comforts, and in terms of all accommodations.” But that’s not true. Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAXs offer at least 32 inches between seats, compared to American’s standard 30 inches.
It may be a long time before there’s significant capital investment in the customer experience again. But it’s important to understand clearly where your product fits in the marketplace. Going into the pandemic American Airlines offered:
- International business class. American’s seats were good, albeit lacking in some important details. Their lounges were improving, and so were their amenity kits. Service was hit-or-miss, and inflight food not very good.
- International economy. American lags Delta, whose Boeing 777s were 9-abreast and where flight attendants offered hot towels and welcome cocktails and said thank you.
- Domestic premium cabin. There’s nothing that compares to Mint outside of the premium cross country routes (and even there JetBlue does a nice job with meals). For shorter routes American Airlines partner Alaska Airlines has a lot to teach American about inflight cuisine.
American’s old standard domestic first class had 40 inches from seat back to seat back, and now has just 36. Seats have less padding, too, so aren’t as comfortable for long domestic flights. And that’s true even after American fixes several of the problems with its new seat.
- Domestic economy. American simply does not offer a premium domestic product. Southwest Airlines has two more inches of space between every seat. Southwest’s and Delta’s service is better, and Delta certainly more reliable.
Sure, American has extra legroom coach seats which are closer to what Southwest offers, but their new domestic configuration has fewer of those than ever before.
American’s strengths were its international business class and its route network. The domestic customer-facing product was weak, and still is. Removing seat back television, cramming more seats into the cabin, and compensating by using seats with less padding makes it weaker still.
This is going to be a bigger challenge for American than ever because airlines are going to be fighting tooth and nail for whatever passenger business is out there, and American will have an inferior product to offer for the domestic trips most customers are looking to buy.
They can entice customers with price, but they have higher trip costs since they didn’t convince many employees to take early retirements. Furloughs mean that only the most senior and highest-paid employees are left working every flight. And they have a higher debt burden than any other airline in the world, so need even more revenue to be competitive and service that debt prior to earning a profit (and paying down some of that debt). Yet American’s standard domestic product is not competitive with the largest domestic airline in the country.