The new American Airlines domestic aircraft configuration is the ‘densest’ it has ever been. I flew the inaugural Boeing 737 MAX flight which has the new interior and is the blueprint for retrofitting existing planes.
There’s less room between seats than ever before. The seats don’t recline as much. There’s no seat back video screens. And the lavatories are so small that I touched both sides of the wall while facing forward. There are fewer extra legroom coach seats, and those have less legroom than before. First class has less legroom too.
United’s plan is to ‘densify’ their aircraft as well. That means adding more seats into the same amount of space.
When United’s President Scott Kirby was President of American Airlines he laid out the theory that an airline makes money by giving customers less, and letting them spend more to buy back what they once had. This year at United he said that a less comfortable product is what customers want.
With new Basic Economy fares United won’t even let customers skip the long check-in lines with online check-in. Every step of the way travel becomes more of a hassle.
United lost about $100 million in their initial rollout of Basic Economy. That’s because customers were choosing other airlines that offered a better deal at the same price. United’s bet was that as soon as American fully rolled out their basic economy the bleeding would stop and they’d start making money from ‘segmentation’.
Of course Southwest and jetBlue and Alaska are still options, not perfect but offering more travel value at the same price.
But it’s not just a question of losing business to competitors. This monkey see, monkey do industry where everyone copies each other in a race to the bottom has executives believing that as long as competitors are just as bad they’ll never lose money. And there’s far less competition in the industry than there used to be, government protects incumbent carriers from new competition through limits on foreign ownership of airlines flying inside the United States and because government airport owner-operators enter into exclusive deals that limit access to gates by new entrants.
And yet airlines are leaving huge value on the table because the choice isn’t just do you fly American or United, it’s do you fly at all?
According to a survey Americans “skipped as many as 32 million air trips in the year 2016.” Factors cited by consumers about the hassle that makes travel not worth it including ‘unbundling’ (myriad fees) as well as airport hassles, long lines, and other inconveniences they attribute to the airlines.
When you make travel less comfortable you are leaving money on the table from those customers who choose to take fewer trips. According to AAA, that’s a tremendous number of passengers who opt not to fly.