The President Of American Airlines Explains What Customers They’re Trying Serve

At an employee question and answer session last week, a flight attendant asked American Airlines President Robert Isom what the airline’s brand identity is now, expressing some confusion between being a low cost carrier and also trying to compete against Delta.

This is a common theme I’ve heard from employees at American Airlines over the past several years – not understanding the airline’s strategy, and so unsure of what kind of service they should be trying to deliver.

In a recording of the discussion reviewed by View From The Wing, Isom explained that they need to appeal to both types of customers,

That American brand has to be something where people say ‘hey when I sign up with American, I know I’m going to get an incredibly reliable product, and no mater the class I book I get what I expected…we have not always lived up to our goals, and it probably always is aspirational given the nature of the business, things break and weather pops up and the like.

Isom previously explained their strategy of following Spirit and Frontier by adding seats onto planes and giving customers less space noting that these no-frills carriers are the most profitable. However American Airlines has much higher costs, and now after the pandemic a more senior workforce than competitors as well as much more debt. They need to earn a revenue premium compared to other airlines just to stay even.

However, Isom doesn’t see it as possible to earn more revenue right now, so the focus has to be on leisure customers who spend less – and on whom the airline should invest less,

Hey our customer base today, the people that are flying right now they are leisure customers…as much as I’d like to say dial it up a notch and get businesses back, we don’t see a lot of corporate travel out there.

To be sure, he says, “there are some people that buy business class or first class for pleasure” but those aren’t the people filling premium cabins. Separately, speaking to pilots, he offered that “network” is what’s key to American’s advantage. I interpret that as being in contrast to the inflight experience.

Put another way, American is serving leisure customers with a downmarket product because those are the customers they think they can attract. However they cannot succeed without higher margin customers, which they can’t attract without a better product. That’s a conundrum this management doesn’t seem to have an answer for.

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. Well, UA seems to have the same strategy and doesn’t seem to have an answer for it, either, though at one time they seemed to think the answer was captive business through corporate contracts.

  2. @ They are serving the Bubbas that would normally take Caribbean cruises. Premium cabins are now filled with non-revs.

  3. Regarding the senior workforce, aren’t all the junior furloughed employees back? AA doesn’t understand that today’s leisure customer could be tomorrow’s business customer who won’t be interested in paying a premium for subpar service.

  4. I’m not sure there’s a good answer. They are caught between a rock and a hard place and I’m not sure that they have the vision, will or shareholder patience to commit one way or the other. They have largely made their choice with density changes and it seems to me that they are going to continue to lose to Southwest on one end and Delta on the other as they get caught in the switches. I’m in an AA hub and what business travel is going on right now has moved significantly to Southwest anyway.

  5. At least they seem to recognize they are like Spirit and Frontier in terms of service and customer experience. I don’t fly those airlines and I won’t fly American. My last experience was enough for me.

  6. I believe the current AA management thinks that they are still running America West. They do know and would love to compete with Frontier and Spirit and always unsure what to do with the high paying business customers. This confusion is deep in their corporate culture. We knew all of this back in 2013.

  7. Constantly downgrading their hard product, soft product, and loyalty program are unlikely moves to draw lots of big spenders. Maybe they should – Le Gasp! – invest actual money in making their product decent.

  8. I flew from MIA to SFO in J, and connected in DFW outbound to avoid that dreadful A321 seat on the 6 hour westbound flight. I did take the non-stop red-eye home. I figured I could stand it for < 5 hours if I was half asleep. Oddly, my CK friend does that same thing!

  9. One customer they definitely do not try to entice is the fare-paying individual first class passenger.
    Better to have a dozen upgraded corprate travelers up front traveling on contract fares earning less per passenger than Spirit than to try to recognize, solicit business from or reward paying customers with superior service or assistance when their vaunted reliability goes to pieces systemwide because there was a bit of weather somewhere in the known universe.

  10. If this is correct and it sounds as plausible as anything else I’ve read.

    As a leisure customer today because there isn’t any corporate travel right now where I work, they can in layman’s terms, give me [for my leisure travel] a crappy product because that’s all they need to do. Got it. However, when business travel resumes [and it will], I will then pick what airline I want to fly. I’m betting on promotions to get those corporate travelers to pick their airline. Consciously or not, I’ll remember how good or bad the AA product is vs other airlines. Treat me worse on my leisure travel and I just may take my higher dollar business travel elsewhere. Remember due to teams working together through zoom, teams, webex etc., I don’t need to travel as much anymore so I will make the trips that I do take more comfortable and the better product. Be careful what you wish for AA, you just may get it.

  11. The author fails to mention that other airlines are densifying their aircraft as well. Delta has virtually the same number of seats on its Airbus narrowbody aircraft as does American, and Delta’s have more first-class seats. But Delta isn’t as routinely slammed on airline blogs for its dense configurations. Why the double standard? As the author correctly points out, ULCCs tend to be the most profitable airlines. There are factors other than seat density behind this, but there’s not enough space to deal with all of them. And there’s probably little reason to do so. To me, the simple truth is that no two carriers are exactly the same. And that’s a good thing. To me, the bottom line is this: The overall marketplace decides what sells and what doesn’t. Not airline bloggers and fans. No airline is perfect. No airline is evil. One last point: The author fails to note that airline employee demographics change over time. Older employees retire, younger people take their places. That’s life. As the sports cliche goes, “Father Time is undefeated.”

  12. AA and DL do not have the same configuration for the A320 and A321 aircraft. DL has the Spaceflex lavs on the back wall which saves the space of a full row of coach seats. They subsequently took out a half row of seats to increase the galley size. AA has standard full galleys on its A320 and A321 aircraft.
    The ACF configuration on the NEO (which AA has but DL does not) allows getting rid of the second set of doors.

    And the real issue is not the Airbus aircraft but the 737-800 which seats 160 on DL but 172 for AA, the same as on their MAX8s. AS and UA all have fewer seats on their 737-800s/MAX8s than AA.
    AA has hundreds more of those aircraft than DL and AA’s MAX fleet is growing.
    AA could have easily ordered the MAX9 and put more seats on but chose a more dense MAX8 configuration than any other US carrier with a multi-class cabin.

  13. No “conundrum.” The market is still almost entirely leisure now. Which is not all bad: it’s twice as many leisure travelers now as at Christmas! We call this “the recovery.” The next recovery is in business travel. You may have heard folks are heading back to their offices. I certainly have. Boo! Give these folks a couple months and they’ll resume business travel. They’ll spend more and the airlines will spend more money to attract them.

    This really isn’t that complicated.

  14. I’m a lifetime platinum member.

    I have a flight tomorrow on JetBlue and next week on southwest. I won’t fly AA unless there is no other choice.

    I’m voting with my wallet

  15. Recently flew AA business class and it was basically coach with more room. They’ve done away with all entertainment unless you use a phone or tablet. Total bs. Had we have know we wouldn’t have opts for the significantly higher seats an our anniversary trip.

  16. I’m flying economy plus coach to SFO from MIA , and first class return, both on a 321. Leisure travel, platinum. First flight in 14 months. Will see what the difference is, if any.

  17. If people are willing to pay Spirit and Frontier to sit in a cramped seat, they are going to going to pay American too. The customer base us who is willing to pay for what is being sold. And that is the customer base in the simplest form.

  18. Our business travel has just started, and this will be good for AA and bad for me, as the corporate system pushes the lowest logical fare and AA is so low that you cant justify using another carrier. Flew 2 legs last week and Spirit would have been better, the Wifi entertainment was a no go, no live stations, and other content was so old (2 -3 seasons behind) that Doug Parker must be working Dollar Stores for DVD’s to copy. The Apple music feature was non-functional. And for the win, 4 hours of flying without even a bottle of water, just a parade of FA’s up and down the aisle with garbage bags.

  19. American airlines is has been company, I live in a AA hub and I choose Southwest 1st and Delta 2nd my last choice is AA I avoid them at all cost. Their Associates are mean, rude and just unpleasant people. The company is inflexible with change. The Southwest flight attendants are always happy cheerful and could not be more helpful.Southwest associates go out of their way to brighten your day. AA needs a corporate culture change immediately as well as to find a vision and a mission to strive for in the future because right now it’s we removed perks crammed in 20 extra seats so knees are at your chest and pissed off their associates which carries over to the way they treat their guests

  20. We flew AA last week. First class was more like ” last class” ! No entertainment, we had to pay $15 greenbacks for wifi that didn’t work. Beverages were offended one time, and a snack thrown my way. 3 hours later and the Filght Attendant sat visiting with other Attendants that were sitting in First Class as passengers. On the way home, plane was canceled, we were told this as we were checking in. We got a new tickets and noticed that we also got ” downgraded” to group 6. I am a handicapped passenger, that’s why I pay to fly first class. This was my first time flying since Covid. When we called AA, the lady was rude, falsely accusing me of using bad language. Which I never did. I highly recommend that you record all phone calls ( if its legal in your state, check your state laws). When having phone conversations with American Airlines Employees make sure it is recorded so you have something to prove /protect yourself. They will lie. Lie like a rug, they are the worst people I have encountered. They way home was horrible, never will I spend money on this Airline that hires dishonest and disrespectful employees. Also another passenger got upset because they paid for an aisle seats and they were in a window seat on their second segment. She had a bad hip and needed the extra room. Also while sitting in “business class” I didn’t receive anything to drink ( not even a baby bottle of water offered let alone a single pretzel. However the flight attendants did (3) or (4) rounds walking with trash bags. It was a little redundant, after the 2nd round. Y’all didn’t give us anything to make trash with. By the 3rd trash round, it was just stupid. Considering there was trash from the previous passenger in my seat space when I first sat down. (Perhaps, this trash rounding was the one they missed prior to us boarding the plane). All in all, in my experience!
    American Airlines Does NOT CARE ABOUT HANDICAPPED PASSENGERS. Also I needed a wheelchair in between flights, they NEVER SHOW UP, to transport you. I almost missed my connection flight. Had to walk, in PAIN, to go sit in a cramped seat, that I paid top price for. NEVER AGAIN! Don’t bother asking for a Wheelchair to transport you. I never got one. They were never at the plane to meet me. They FAs paged them for 15 -20 min sometimes. But no one shows up and who can wait that long for a transporter.
    HANDICAPPED passengers have to use the lavatory and catch their planes too.
    They only care about MONEY, ie TAKING YOURS!

  21. We live in an AA hub and we’re, pre-covid, frequent pleasure travelers. The Max8 on American is simply awful. I am a 5 foot 5 inch tall, 120 pound woman and I can barely turn around in the restroom. I can’t imagine what a 6 foot tall, 200 pound man has to do. It is ridiculous and an insult to all passengers.
    Fortunately AA has some decent partner airlines so that, when traveling internationally, we would opt for the foreign carriers I order to avoid AA.
    Travel with AA is always a DISAPPOINTMENT!

  22. Americans employees need to stop questioning leadership and be present for the customers who are flying. I flew them 2 weeks ago and will say their employees are so disconnected and seemingly unhappy that is shows in their lack luster customer service. From the check-in to baggage claim and everyone in between I give them a 3 of 10 for the customer service and care. I won’t fly them again.

  23. AA has hit the bottom of the list for all major carriers. The AA board inreds new leadership along with the removal of Doug Parker and his gang. If you ask the flight attendants for something they are rude and angry because you ate interfering with their group conversations in the galley or on their crew seats and you only see them with those nasty trash bags. Its a shame America’s airline is the worst. The seats are cramped and uncomfortable with no entertainment and the planes are now equipped with kiddie lavatories.
    AA is in serious need of new leadership and new service enhancements to compete with the other carriers.

  24. I have given up on having any desire to fly American airlines. The customer service shows a lack of inspiration, courtesy and service. Always having to read about another, and another, poor decision by apathetic attendants. They are there for safety and if I can’t trust them caring about service, how can I trust they be trusted with my safety in case of an emergency? Trickle down from the top, I assume. Same with United.

  25. I have been an EP on AA & Chairman on US Airways.
    A is at an alltime low. 1st class is a joke. If I see one more fruit & cheese plate Ill choke. Service up front is almost nil. Last flight I had to take up my own lunch trash. Coach is worse as attendants back there dont collect the trash of stuff we brought on board. I swear they are all former USA people.

  26. It’s time they retire the oldies. On my last Flight from Frankfurt to Dallas in business class one flight attendant could only take 1 drink order at a time, and even then she forgot who ordered it. In the course of 5 hours I drank 3 cans of club soda. Asking for another one I was told I had 3 and that was all they had in business class…….
    And to top it off, light, call button and earphone receptacle did not work. Food very mediocre.


  27. To pad the pocket of scoundrel Dougie Parker, who stole pension money from pilots, would be just plain dumb!

  28. I’m a millennial and this is my opinion.

    Firstly, I don’t know why all of you are complaining about the entertainment bring removed from the back of the seats! It’s a green choice! Everyone carries at least a smartphone they usually love, most people also carry a tablet and/or a laptop. All of these device most often offer a much better viewing experience. Not to mention many people download their Netflix/Hulu or even Youtube entertainment for the domestic flights.

    Secondly, removing the screens from the back of the seats allows for the seats to be significantly thinner and lighter.

    Sure, I personally wouldn’t mind if they had less lavatories and would instead offer slightly bigger ones. But as a 6 foor 220lbs dude, I’m not taking a flight to use the lavatories and I never really had any issues.

    And in regards to the inflight food&drink service – as long as I can get water, if I’m thirsty, I’m fine and I wouldn’t even mind if they charged for that.

    Less food and drinks also means less weight. Let’s be honest – most people don’t really enjoy the food and the drinks on board anyhow. What most of us miss is the service – because we’re usually bored. Sitting in a seat for hours is less boring simply because there’s something going on and our brain is entertained with expectations. “Oh – time for service”.

    Well – if you don’t need to fly – don’t! Stay home in your 5000$ armchair or wheelchair or whatever. (Many, too many people fly with the slightest excuse for doing so. Especially business travels. This needs to end!)

    I’ve recently flown with Spirit, AA, UA, Delta and Alaska. Delta and Alaska definitely seemed a bit more comfy and I get it – in long journeys that counts. All the airlines have a similar theme going on, at least for the domestic flights.

    Everything AA is doing is actually contributing to a lower carbon footprint and lower cost. As with everything, I think it’s important they try to constantly evolve their service. And no – I don’t think they’re the best at it. But some of the decisions they’ve made, and you “experts” are complaining about, are just fine! I appreciate more people on a single flight, thinner seats, lower carbon footprint and occasionally also lower ticket price. I actually got to fly American from Las Vegas to EWR for under 100$ one way. No complaints!

  29. Avoid American Airlines at all costs. Worst customer service in LAX I’ve ever dealt with. Yes

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