United Airlines President: Customers Must Like the Abuse or They Wouldn’t Buy So Many Tickets From Us

American Airlines is on the verge of introducing the most uncomfortable seat in the history of US legacy airlines — with as little as 29 inches of pitch (the distance from seat back to seat back) compared to 31 inches in economy currently and less padding (slimline seats) — when it receives its first Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. We can expect that they will retrofit existing 737s, the workhorse of the American Airlines domestic fleet, to eventually offer this uncomfortable product as well.


Walking Towards The Second Worst Seats in the History of US Legacy Airlines

The airline was plotting its strategy for these new planes when Scott Kirby was its President. Now Kirby is President of United Airlines.

So it’s no surprise that when United Airlines employees asked him whether this was an opportunity for United gain an advantage by offering a better product than American he said no. Brian Sumers wrote in Skift that Kirby went on to explain,

“Seat pitch has come down,” Kirby said. “But seat pitch has come down because that’s what customers voted with their wallets that they wanted. I know everyone would tell you, ‘I would like more seat pitch.’ But the history in the airline industry is every time airlines put more seat pitch on, customers choose the lowest price.”

As the parody Twitter account @FakeUnitedJeff (United’s former Chairman and CEO was Jeff Smisek, ousted in a corruption scandal) remarked,

We can clearly expect United to follow American’s lead in reducing the amount of legroom in economy. Kirby says if you want legroom, pay more for it.

“I say, ‘Pay a little more and you get can get seat pitch,” he said. “If it’s worth it to you, you can do it. But if you just want the cheapest fare, this is what it is.”

Shrinking legroom is important, Kirby says, “to be competitive with Southwest Airlines and Spirit Airlines” but Southwest offers 31 to 33 inches of legroom, not 29 or 30 inches. Southwest doesn’t charge change fees or checked bag fees, either. His plan to be competitive with Southwest (which carriers more domestic passengers than any other airline) is to offer an inferior product than Southwest.

Sumers notes that American Airlines took seats out of aircraft for its “More Room Throughout Coach” initiative offering 34 inches of pitch throughout all seats on its aircraft. Customers weren’t willing to pay a revenue premium to fly American, so they reduced pitch back to 31 inches. But that doesn’t suggest less than 31 inches is the right answer either, though tellingly Kirby doesn’t suggest what a bare minimum product offering would look like. Ryanair has jokingly suggested forcing customers to stand in exchange for low fares.

Ultimately Kirby’s position is:

  • If customers didn’t like a poor inflight product, they’d stop buying tickets from United.

  • If customers want anything better than what United offers, they should give United more money.

While American Airlines Chairman and CEO Doug Parker warned (himself, apparently) of the dangers of short-term thinking Kirby may right, United can compete with American in the race to the bottom because there is little margin around which airlines can compete and little prospect of new competitors. Kirby’s statements should be a clarion call for government policy to change to allow for greater competition in the airline industry.

It’s not a foregone conclusion that Kirby is right, because Southwest, Alaska, Virgin America and even Delta offer a better product today than American and apparently United intend to offer. So consumers have some choices.

But there’s a limited margin around which airlines compete today, and government keeps competitors out of the U.S. market. They own the airports and often limit availability of gates, for example gates were even eliminated at Dallas Love Field as part of legislation that relaxed previous restrictions which limited competition out of that airport on flights beyond surrounding states. Other airlines won because it meant there would still be a limit to the number of competitive flights from Love Field. Southwest, the airport’s major tenant, won because it meant there would be very little competition against them for flights at that airport. Only consumers lose. Meanwhile there are high quality airlines all over the world that are legally forbidden from entering the U.S. market.

We should eliminate restrictions on foreign ownership of airlines operating between cities in the U.S. While American, Delta, and United want to further limit competition by preventing new routes and low prices from being offered by Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar, we should invite those airlines to fly within the US to compete with American, Delta, and United.

We should invite in Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, and any myriad other airlines that meet safety standards. That won’t be a panacea, there will still be government barriers to competition at the airport and airspace level. But it’s the biggest thing we can do as a start to turn things around.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. United and American were my favorite airlines for over 25 years
    Since both their most recent CEOs are out of touch with what customers want now
    you’ll find me flying elsewhere
    Their FF programs are complicated and awful now and the lowest cost award redemption allotment inexcusable.Added to that their miserable uncomfortable seating
    You’ll find me on Alaska Jet Blue Mint and once in a blue moon Southwest
    I never thought I would leave American being a lifetime Platinum
    But customer relationship management comfort and reasonable award availability with outstanding policies for elites matter more than what these overly entitled fantasy world CEOs think
    They haven’t a clue that they are simply making their airlines obsolete in the flying publics mind especially the frequent traveler
    I do anything to avoid them now
    No race to the bottom they are their with Spirit and Delta
    Thank God we have choices despite their government created monopolies

  2. You know, Gary, I try and fly Spirit Airlines now and then. It confrms to me the direction US carriers are headed – so Delta, American and United will be on the same level.

  3. absolutely not – we should not allow foreign-owned airlines to fly domestic flights in the US. The protectionist rules limiting the operation of foreign predatory carriers like RyanAir and Norwegian and EasyJet (and those would be the most successful ones) are probably the only thing that still functions properly about the airline industry in the US.
    The trouble right now in the US is lack of regulation. Airlines cannot compete with each other with better inflight product (customers are not willing to pay more for it as Kirby points out – duh! I don’t know anyone who is willing to pay for extra legroom), therefore it needs to be mandated by the government. A minimum seat pitch so that people can have a minimum of comfort would be nice – just the same way that airlines are forced to accommodate people with disabilities and musicians with instruments etc. Price regulation would be another nice thing, so that airlines cannot undercut each other unreasonably, and can’t charge outrageous prices during holidays. The idea that an airline can both charge a change fee from most passengers, yet still overbook a flight on top of that is absurd, as the whole point of change fees is to compensate the airline for not being able to sell the seat again. There need to be regulations limiting the cheating that goes on with airline schedules. Practically every single flight I buy gets changed by the airline between booking and departure (I buy 6 months ahead of time) – the flights are first scheduled at a desirable time, and then get rescheduled eventually at more impractical hours, without compensation to the passenger, whose only choice at that point is to cancel for a refund, and buy elsewhere (at that point prices elsewhere will be higher). Another point is regulation of frequent flyer programs – limiting devaluations, forcing airlines like DL to give advance notice of changes and overall protecting the value of our award accounts. I’m not sure that there is another industry that is screaming for government intervention as much as this one – but perhaps that’s only my impression because I fly so much and see how dysfunctional it is. Airlines are all making nice profits and the customers are getting screwed left and right – and voting with our wallets does not work as we all know because our choices of carriers are very limited based on geography and all the mergers.
    So, either we break up the big airlines (each one into 3-4 carriers) to generate some competition, or else we regulate the industry more.
    I know these are only dreams and that things will only get worse and worse.

  4. I don’t find Smisek’s position to be outrageous (or even wrong). I fly to get from one place to another in a short amount of time. I don’t want to pay much money for it. If I can save some money by sacrificing some comfort for a few hours, I will usually do that. I will usually pay a little extra money to fly Delta, which usually offers better service, but not much.

    I know you aren’t proposing a requirement that we all fly economy plus or some other comfort option, but many people are. And I certainly don’t have any problem with your proposal of allowing more competition. But if the effect of that competition is to give me an option of paying more for better service, options are good, especially when I am paying with miles, but my primary consideration will be price..

  5. Sorry, it is the customer’s fault, brand loyalty for almost every product in the US is gone. Probably 95% of Americans make every monetary decision in their life base upon the lowest perceived price. When buying a car they look at the monthly payment not how much the car actually costs with interest. They rack up huge student loan and credit card debt and then pay the minumum.

    I actually pay for domestic first class seats. If you factor inflation a first class seat is about the same cost as of a coach seat pre-deregulation in the 1970s. There’s no need to regulate seat pitch. Most airlines have an option for 36″ to 38″ seat pitch – you just got to pay for the space.

  6. Soon customer shall be read as cattle. If standing is cheaper, stand you will. And don’t forget the gadgets and electronics ban either…

  7. I flew an AA 787-8 in first last night from Chicago to LA. The seats are mediocre and they have become so cheap they now give you a flimsy blanket that’s not even long enough to reach your legs. It’s basically the same blankets they used to hand out in economy. The Bose head sets are gone replaced by cheap worthless ears buds paid for by Mastercard since they have their name stamped on them and on the packaging. If United follows their race to the bottom they are going to end up with a plane filled with Spirit customers. In my opinion Southwest is significantly more comfortable if you are flying in coach and for $15 extra dollars they’ll check you in 24 hours in advance giving you a higher priority number basically guaranteeing you an aisle seat if you want one.

  8. I think we can look at this problem from the perspective of customers making their decisions using incomplete information. Each airline interprets each level of service at least a little differently. And each aircraft type can have a different interpretation of that level of service within the same airline. Very experienced and expert air travelers can look at all the itineraries on a flight search result page and understand that, at the same price, each flight can provide a different value. But 90% of fliers aren’t very experienced or experts at air travel.

    I think this is in part a failure of online travel agencies / search sites to present full information about each of the flights they return from flight searches. If these sites would present customers with all the differences in service on each flight (checked bag fees, change fees, seat pitch, meal service, IFE, etc.), I think you’d see this race to the bottom stop. However, airlines must compete on the factors that customers use to make their decisions. I can assure you that if one flight is priced $1 less than another flight, today the overwhelming majority of customers will choose the lower priced flight regardless of any other factors (most of which they can’t see). This forces airlines to position themselves to be as profitable as possible offering the cheapest fare mix in the market (so often times being competitive with NK).

    Long ago, before OTAs put most traditional travel agencies out of business, the average traveler had experts to help them make these booking decisions. OTAs eliminated almost all of these experts. But the need for their expertise continues, even if people won’t pay extra to use them. I don’t think regulation is going to help at all. I suggest pressuring OTAs to present the full spectrum of information about each flight as part of their search results so customers can make better decisions. It only takes one to do this and all others will be forced to follow suit (or lose customers).

  9. Kirby and Parker have smashed their airlines into the ground. Right into the same hell-hole that Delta is in..After millions of miles on AA I’ve flushed them down the toilet where they belong. Now I only fly Alaska/Virgin, Jet Blue and Southwest.

  10. If any of those carrriers even try to come to the US they will be clobbered. FIrst of all, they’re all doing poorly in the face of increased low fare competition in their respective markets. Second of all, eyihD is no comfort leader in coach- hello 10 across seating on the 777. Third of all they won’t be able to charge more than their competitors to pay for their supposedly vauntedhigh service and comfort levels- people won’t pay for it. They would rapidly install just as many seats as their domestic competitors have in order to reduce their costs. Finallywhy do you even assume they would want to enter this market? It’s savage and fierce and they don’t have the cost structures to be competitive in this market. They’d need to invest in huge fleets, and probably would not want to. Think before you post things like this.

  11. I’m fine with letting foreign operators compete in the US as long as we allow US carriers to also employ southeast asians at slave wages and require foreign governments to divest their holdings to public ownership so that they are also required to meet SEC requirements of financial disclosure. Otherwise you are just serving up our aviation industry to competitive slaughter.

  12. When there was meaningful competition (instead of the token competition that currently exists aka an oligopoly [at best on only the busiest trunk routes]) airlines with service as horrible as American and United’s, for example, like Eastern, Pan Am, or TWA, would go out of business as these carriers did. Now, however, with the government sanctioned monopolies and high barriers to entry, American, United and others know passengers have few, if any, options and that’s why Scott Kirby can get away with “alternative facting” his bs rap that despite his airlines’ race to the bottom, people still fly the two crappy airlines he’s having a heavy hand at destroying. It’s simple: they have no choice, especially in all but the most trafficked routes like NYC-LAX…but for those in Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, or Minneapolis/St. Paul just to name a few fortress hub cities, and most small cities, choices are limited, and that always leads to crappy service and higher prices…just like the local cable tv monopolies know they can get away with.

  13. Most people who are buying plane tickets just see the price. They are assuming that the seats are the same for the most part between airlines and probably don’t fly enough to understand how much pitch or space they actually need. Its not like they are willingly sacrificing comfort for cheaper fares. Its that they don’t know any better. Once enough people start having a hellish experience with United they will start looking for other airlines (assuming they even fly enough to have another flight in the following year). Hopefully there will be a public awareness campaign about what United is doing and people will start refusing to fly with them. Also, some people are in hubs etc where they don’t really have a choice but to fly a different airline.

  14. In the ‘race to the bottom’ I’m in favor of government regulating just how low the bottom can go .
    More government regulations are always onerous , except when they are effective . Competition is just not much of a factor with US airlines when it comes to the comfort of economy class. If all airlines have to meet the same minimum standards no one will have the advantage , or disadvantage in that regard .
    For various reasons some just do not have the means to fly except at the lowest cost . I’m in favor of limiting how awful their flying experience will be .
    Obviously the airlines have little incentive to improve conditions of their own initiative .
    They will cry loudly about any new requirements , and then they will comply . Just as it is now accepted that cars must have seatbelts and emission control systems it could eventually be accepted that all airlines must provide a minimum accommodation .

  15. I used to avoid Southwest. Now it’s my first choice for domestic. Better seats, flexibility to cancel even at the last minute without penalty, free checked bags, friendlier staff.

  16. We should allow foreign airlines to compete in our domestic routes. Without them AA/Delta/UAL will keep offering inferior and very poor products/service/options at a very high price.
    AA/Delta/UAL have a “subsidized” US domestic market because there is no competition. All the Airline Lobbyists are fighting hard the congressman/senators are in their pockets!

  17. I fail to see a difference nowadays between “Predatory” airlines as you call them, and United. Especially when United is going to soon have worse seats than EasyJet…..

    Competition will actually ALLOW us the option of choosing with our wallets. As opposed to the near United monopoly at EWR…

  18. @James is correct. In historical terms, first class domestic tickets aren’t expensive now. But we’ve all gotten used to dirt-cheap cattle car fares. Kirby is 100% correct that, when given a choice between a low fare or comfort, most customers choose the low fare.

    There’s also the law of unintended consequences. I suspect the major airlines would LOVE to see the gov’t mandate a 31″ pitch. Why? Because it would likely put their major price competition — Spirit and Frontier — out of business! Believe me, AA, DL and UA would love not to compete on price. The primary reason pitch keeps shrinking is because they have to respond to the “slave ship” pricing model of the ultra low cost carriers.

    If the US airlines make money on their new int’l “premium economy” seats, I would not be surprised to see that concept expanded to the domestic market. I do think there’s a growing market of rich folks who are willing to spend money on comfort and “prestige.” Not everyone wants the best deal; if they did, there wouldn’t be luxury goods. I could conceive of a model where 1/3rd of a narrowbody aircraft had 2 x 2 or 3 x 2 seating, and the rest was 3 x 3. We’ll have to see how the market develops. Personally, I think it’s better if “the market” decides this, not inefficient gov’t regulation.

    BTW, your argument that “all we need is foreign airlines to come in and fix things” is absurd. The airlines you mention are all struggling to make money in a free market or receive billions in subsidies. They haven’t built better mousetraps. The USA airlines are quite good at delivering a product their customers are willing to pay for. The profit margins they’re earning on this service are not extraordinary; most industries have better margins. The problem is when folks expect service that costs more than they’re willing to pay.

  19. Just book first class for more leg room and you can avoid the riffraff in economy. Fortunately the days of freeloaders in FC using upgrades are almost gone. These are the same people always trying to sneak upfront to use the better bathrooms. They seem to come up with new tricks each flight. Why should I be disturbed while I am relaxing and enjoying a glass of wine and my dinner or my health bar sundae?

  20. My last long haul was 2 1/2 years ago. I flew delta and liked it. But if we can find another carrier to fly on long haul, one that is NOT from a communist country or Muslim country we will do so. Not a lot of options I know

  21. One other thing I couldn’t help but think: If Spirit Airlines decided to offer a free checked bag and seat selection with their co-branded credit card – They would become a more preferable choice then United, or at the very least – On par.

    Wow

  22. ok, some of the comments here seem a bit off. Oh yes, Southwest is so great because you can pay them in advance to get a low boarding number to increase the chance of an aisle seat… As opposed to just selecting an aisle seat at booking on UA or AA? All these comparisons between airlines are apples to oranges – which is exactly my point.
    Simply setting a minimum passanger comfort standards (in terms of seating and fees) would make it much easier for customers to compare product and price. Suddenly the market forces might actually work a bit better.
    An example of regulations that can help consumers to shop around are the ACA health care exchange websites, where plans have to fit some basic requirements and are sorted into bronze, silver, gold – suddenly, for the first time ever, it was possible for everybody to actually compare health care insurers at a glance based on cost and value. My own health care bill went down by $500/month because I suddenly realized how much I’d been ripped off. (it has since gone up to what it was before, alas) And no need to delve into hundreds of pages of fine print to see whether specific pre-existing conditions were excluded, or just how each company was going to try to screw me.
    There are many, many other problems with the ACA that we don’t have to get into now, and so many problems with the health care system it did not address or fix, but this was one of its strongest features.
    Perhaps setting minimum standards for basic economy and economy plus (such as all airlines calling it the same thing, regulating the extra fees, compensation rules) would help people compare fares in a similar way. When they see a flight is $15 cheaper, they’d immediately see the drawbacks. Companies could then invest in a better product without fearing that consumers would simply choose Spirit instead.

    Sure, we could wait for the airlines to do this themselves – except we all know that it will never happen. Market forces are efficient at maximizing profits, but not at helping consumers, which is why citizens all over the world, through their governments, establish rules that companies must comply with. For example, in the EU, you get up to €600 if your flight is canceled or delayed more than a certain amount. Isn’t that neat? Yay regulations!

  23. Here’s the thing with all of this.

    Southwest may not be a legacy carrier, but they’re also not a budget carrier (anymore). I find that for my travel, Southwest is regularly MORE money than the legacy carriers on the same routes.

    And US budget carriers really aren’t BUDGET carriers, at least when compared with Easyjet, Ryanair, and Transavia. Sure, airlines like Frontier and Spirit nickel and dime you a bit, but they’re rank amateurs in comparison. On the other hand, their fares are considerably higher too.

    If I had one big fear about the move to decrease pitch on the legacy carriers, it’d be this. Every company I’ve worked for has explicitly called out in their travel policies that we were to purchase the lowest practical fare, but they’ve all also stated that we were not obligated to fly “leisure carriers” (or something similar). With legacy carriers offering a product indistinguishable from budget carriers, I can see that distinction evaporating and people being obligated to sit in these horrible seats on behalf of their companies instead of making their own economic decision.

  24. This is what happens when you allow airlines to merge in US. Kill competition, offer shit quality service, high ticket prices, & paying for everything from pillows to food. Even with oil prices hovering around $50 / barrel, there are still fuel charges?! Sadly the consumers are getting the raw end of the deal by fattening up the airlines bottom line. When they claim they are losing money, maybe they should take a look at their CEO & Chairman packages!

  25. Good article Gary! Through no fault of my own, I have long legs. When the ceo says less pitch that means to me, more pain. Not just on the plane, but after as I attempt to walk and regain the function of my knees.

    I have never flown Spirit airlines, and probably never will. I may try and not fly United again, if I can avoid it. Not flying is always an option. I know plenty of people who have never returned to flying after 9/11. Cramming more passengers in won’t help with that.

    Competing all the way down means, taking the train, instead of the shuttle on the east coast, oops that options gone already isn’t it? The shuttle I mean, not the metroliner.

    Why fly when the airline company has zero regard for customer comfort or satisfaction with their product. I don’t really believe they can be so stupid as to gut their own product and basically attack their own customer base. People will stop flying them. So, I think they already see the handwriting on the wall, and know that they need favourable regulatory assistance to survive at all. They don’t want to become Spirit, they want to become Emirates.

    Look at the experience of these guys running these airlines, they have been in charge of bankruptcies and obsolescence/mergers. They aren’t building anything, they are presiding over the decline and defunction of their charges. And that is what they know and will continue to do.

    Consider this: What’s the tipping point for a driverless car ride in comfort and privacy overnite vs an allday connection flight multiple airport surface transportation fandango? (with no checked or carry on bag) I’d say around 300 hundred miles for a one day trip. Won’t be long and all those precious airport gates will be mostly empty or used for trunk line shuttles only. Then we can all stretch out.

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