United Airlines didn’t just announce a major aircraft order today, they pitched a plan to offer a more premium flight experience. A symbol of that plan is to offer seat back entertainment screens to all passengers, not just on new planes but retrofitting the existing fleet as well.
CEO Scott Kirby isn’t just arguing that these are important to passengers. He isn’t just saying that he’s had a change of heart, covering not just United’s opportunities going forward but at his previous airlines that haven’t made similar investments. He is throwing shade at other airlines, saying he’s always been a proponent of seat back entertainment but has been stymied.
Live and Let’s Fly quotes Kirby at a briefing on the announcement, “I put seatback screens on at my last airline, and they got removed after I left.”
His claim is that he wanted seat back entertainment at American Airlines, and they ditched the plan after he was no longer there. Live and Let’s Fly explains that Kirby meant “At American Airlines, Kirby added seatback screens to many jets only to see them taken out when he left for United Airlines.”
Each word Kirby says here is technically accurate but utterly disingenuous. Screens were in new planes being delivered while Kirby was at American and he left before the plan to pull them out was actually implemented. But that’s now the impression he’s trying to give.
For some background, Scott Kirby has never seemed to zero in on a passenger experience element he couldn’t cut. For instance,
- As President of US Airways he removed seat power from aircraft that had it prior to their acquisition by America West.
- As President of US Airways he introduced a plan to charge for water and eliminated elite bonus miles.
- At United Airlines he implemented cut after cut to the Polaris business class product, reducing flight attendant staffing in international business class and moving to pre-plated meals, cutting bloody mary and mimosa carts and flights of wine. They stopped proactively offering midflight snacks, and eliminated the soup course back when the airline still had first class.
A decade ago Kirby explained the only reason US Airways even added inflight internet – and they were late to do it – was because they saw they were losing ticket sales by not having wifi. Until that point he dismissed it, arguing that they weren’t going to make money selling it.
So maybe Kirby thought that other elements of service didn’t matter, but seat back video did? He never added it at US Airways, but perhaps he didn’t feel they were in a financial position to make the investment (but that after $10 billion in federal subsidies during the pandemic United is).
But let’s look at the facts,
- He didn’t green light a plan for seat back screens at American. That’s simply not true. American’s Airbus A321s with TVs at every seat began getting delivered a month before the US Airways merger closed. Kirby wasn’t even on site when the airline started getting these planes. (The first Boeing 737-800 with screens at every seat was delivered the day after the merger closed. Of course the plan to put them in was inked much earlier.)
- When legacy US Airways Airbus A319s were being reconfigured to match the American Airlines configuration, those planes weren’t given seat back screens even though the American A319s which were delivered before Kirby was in charge had them.
- Planning for the new domestic interior at American Airlines, which meant pulling out seat back screens, began while he was President of American, even though the first plane with this interior wasn’t delivered until after he left.
Seat Back Entertainment At American Airlines, Pre-Scott Kirby
Scott Kirby was responsible for American Airlines adopting a revenue-based mileage program that mimicked United Airlines and Delta over the objections of the AAdvantage team. As President of American he was sufficiently in the weeds that he chose Platinum Pro at the name for the program’s new 75K elite tier, even though it wasn’t what the AAdvantage team liked.
It’s great to the United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby say that he wants to make the carrier the preferred one for customers. Seat back video screens is a good symbol of that commitment. But rather than a long-stifled champion of the concept, he owns American Airlines not having these screens today. Now he’s preparing to beat them because of the past decisions he made at his own airline which frankly seems fitting.