Skift Take

People think airlines don't listen to customers. But they do, especially when revenue is at stake. American's most lucrative customers fly in first class, and when they're not happy, it's a problem. We're not surprised American is changing course on its short-haul first class product.

American Airlines will tweak first class to add more leg space, extra in-seat power, and other amenities after passengers complained about the product on some retrofitted short-haul aircraft, but the carrier will keep economy as it is, the airline’s chief financial officer Derek Kerr said Tuesday in an interview.

“We are modifying certain things in the first class of that aircraft that, when we originally rolled it out, were not done properly,” Kerr said.

American introduced what it called its Project Oasis configuration in late 2017 when it received its first Boeing 737 Max aircraft and then began rolling it out to other aircraft, including Airbus A321s and older 737s. In first class and economy class, American reduced legroom and removed personal televisions, arguing they cost too much and quickly would become obsolete. It also shrunk the size of some bathrooms, to accommodate the addition of more seats, mainly in economy class.

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Some passengers complained, asking why the airline needed to cram 12 extra seats into its Boeing 737s, mostly at the expense of economy class passenger space. On A321 jets, American is adding three or nine seats, depending on the plane.

While economy space has shrunk, the product is roughly competitive with what other U.S. carriers offer, and Kerr said it will not change. “It will be pretty much the same as it was,” he said.

First class is different. While seat pitch on American’s new first class is nearly equivalent to what Delta Air Lines has installed, American made a series of minor errors that make the product feel less comfortable, frequent flyers say. Many customers have complained about limited below-seat storage and a lack of USB power.

Brett Snyder, an airline industry analyst who also runs a high-end travel concierge business, said he has heard from clients that the seats are “poorly thought out” and “desperately in need of help.” Given the importance of premium customers, Snyder said he’s not surprised American is changing course.

“For American, the people who sit in first class are the people they care about the most,” Snyder said. “They have to make sure those people are happy.”

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Kerr said American now will rectify some issues passengers flagged. “The seats that we used, they didn’t have some storage underneath,” he said. “They didn’t have holders for iPads that people want. They didn’t have a cup holder type of thing. The approval is in place for that, and all aircraft will be modified.”

Economy Class Proposition

Economy class is also tight, with regular seats on the 737-800 having 30 inches of pitch, while extra legroom seats have 33.

That’s about one inch less space than Delta gives passengers on the same plane. But an American spokeswoman said the airline’s internal metrics show the plane receives “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from economy class customers, especially in the categories of seat, cabin comfort, and carry-on space.

Kerr said he knows some passengers would prefer more legroom, but he said the product is competitive. He noted it was already changed once, with American at first planning to add 29-inch pitch in three rows and then backing off that plan after customers and employees complained.

“We have standards inside of our aircraft that we’re going to stick by,” he said. “I think when we rolled it out, we may have rolled it out with a little different pitch. But we’ve re-looked at it all. We’re very competitive with all the other carriers, and we’re not worried about where that configuration is.”

Snyder said he’s not surprised American is leaving economy class alone.

“I hadn’t heard many complaints about coach,” he said. “People seem to like whining about the number of seats on the airplane, but it doesn’t actually seem like it is that uncomfortable.”

Time frame

American has paused all aircraft modifications over the summer because it needs every airplane in peak summer season.

Retrofits will resume next month, an airline spokeswoman said. But at first, American will install the older first class cabins, because the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved the airline’s tweaks.

American expects to begin the project to change first class cabins next spring, the spokeswoman said.

Reason for Modifications

Most media coverage of American’s cabin retrofits has focused on the extra seats, enabling the airline to squeeze more revenue from the same space.

That’s important, Kerr said, but it’s only part of the reason American is updating its cabins. American is also making changes because six years after its merger with US Airways, the airline still has two sets of aircraft interiors — some that belonged to American, and others that belonged to US Airways.

Now both will be retrofitted to the same specifications, giving managers more flexibility in which aircraft they can send to what markets.

“The Oasis Project is really about conformity and trying to make things easier on the operation,” he said. “You want to make sure that you can do different things with these aircraft and make sure that the aircraft are fungible, so when there is day-of-departure issues or swaps, that you can do that.”

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Tags: airline passenger experience, american airlines

Photo credit: American Airlines has been installing new interiors on its planes. The enterprise is called "Project Oasis." Airbus

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