Some travelers will encounter the most tangible evidence of the reboot of American Airlines on Monday when the airline begins flying its first Airbus A319 jets.
American initially will put about a half-dozen A319s into service, flying from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Charlotte, N.C.; Cleveland; Memphis, Tenn.; and Wichita.
Regular routes in and out of Tulsa have not been scheduled yet, but local fliers likely will experience the new aircraft as they make connections at DFW.
Although American’s struggles to exit bankruptcy and merge with US Airways have dominated headlines recently, the airline never has backed away from its July 2011 decision to place a multibillion-dollar order for 460 new airplanes from Airbus and Boeing.
Some analysts have suggested American is taking a risk by spending so much money on new planes at this stage of its restructuring, but the airline seems confident the fuel savings and customer appeal will justify the cost.
“Nothing invigorates an airline like new airplanes,” American CEO Tom Horton said in a press conference introducing the jets.
The Airbus A319 is the first model in the new fleet to be put into the air, and it promises to offer many upgrades to jaded fliers who have been crying out for more comfort and in-flight gadgetry.
“Everything about the new A319 aircraft has been designed with the customer at the center,” said Virasb Vahidi, American’s chief commercial officer.
The A319s will have 128 seats, all in full leather, a perk that previously was offered only in first class. Further enhancing relaxation will be a cabin that is substantially quieter, American promises. While nestled in that new environment, passengers will be able to access a vast menu of entertainment options.
Coach customers will be outfitted with an 8.9-inch HD screen and able to obtain NBC Universal programming for free. An optional $4 package will deliver 200 movies, 150 TV shows and 300 music albums, as well as audiobooks and games.
First-class passengers will enjoy a 12.1-inch screen and have free access to 200 movies, 180 TV shows and 350 audio selections, plus audiobooks and 15 video games.
“In addition, there will be Wi-Fi provided by Gogo, and each seat will have a power outlet so passengers can charge their devices during flight,” said Matt Miller, an American Airlines spokesman.
The interior design includes dark blue seats in the main cabin and gray in first class, along with plush carpet and larger storage bins. The exterior will feature American’s new paint scheme and logo.
The A319s, which were made in Germany and have a reported retail price of about $85 million each, are expected to do more for American than please passengers. The jets are designed to be 35 percent more fuel efficient than the MD-80s they are replacing, Miller said.
No decision has been made yet on where the new Airbus planes will be maintained, he said. With the closing of American’s Alliance base in Fort Worth, however, Tulsa’s large maintenance and engineering center — which has about 5,000 mechanics — would appear to be in a good position to get the work.
The A319 will replace not only American Airlines’ MD-80s, but also some aging 757s, Miller said. The retired airplanes will be parked in the New Mexico desert, as there’s no market for them, he said.
Seth Kaplan, editor of Airline Weekly, thinks American’s decision to overhaul its fleet now is a bit of a gamble.
“It’s kind of like trading in a used car for a new one,” Kaplan said. “You will save on fuel costs and maintenance, but will that be enough to offset the cost?”
Delta is at the opposite end of the spectrum as far as its fleet strategy, the analyst said. Delta has the oldest airplanes of all the major carriers — and likes it that way.
“If you have a large fleet of new aircraft, you become a fixed-cost airline,” Kaplan explained. “You feel like you need to fly the heck out of those planes.
“On the other hand, if you have a lot of older planes like Delta, you’re more inclined to fly them when you need them. This is what Delta does — it varies its schedule according to changing demands during the different seasons and even the days of the week.”
As a result, Delta may burn more fuel when it flies, but through careful scheduling it can keep fewer planes in the air to move the same amount of passengers, Kaplan said.
The Airline Weekly editor questioned American’s decision to buy so many A319s.
“This is a smaller airplane that actually burns more fuel per passenger mile than some of the bigger models. Right after American placed its order, the market for A319s went south. So I hope American got a good price on them.”
Kaplan also was skeptical the new airplanes on their own will be a major customer draw. “Most people choose flights based on ticket prices and fees, not the model of aircraft.”
Still, Kaplan said, all airlines eventually must upgrade their fleets. As for how American’s aggressive decision might turn out, “time will tell,” he said.
The last time American placed an order for Airbus jets was in the 1980s. The three dozen A300-600Rs it obtained in that contract were all taken out of service by 2009.
As part of its current fleet rejuvenation, American also is buying 200 737-family airplanes from Boeing.
American’s goal is to create the “youngest, most fuel-efficient fleet among U.S. industry peers,” Horton said.
With options in its contracts with manufacturers, American could acquire up to 925 aircraft during the next 12 years.
As far as Airbus products, American plans to take delivery of 130 A319 and A321 (a “stretched version of the 319) models through 2017. The airline then plans to receive 130 A320 “Neo” aircraft with next-generation engine technology beginning in 2017.
American will modify some of the A321s for transcontinental flights, designating those aircraft as A321Ts. The A321T is scheduled to begin service between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Los Angeles International Airport, and JFK and San Francisco International Airport in early 2014, Miller said.
Adding the new Airbus planes means more to American than just lower costs, Horton said.
“(It) lifts the spirits of our whole team and shows confidence in a bright future,” he said.
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