American’s new domestic standard product is debuted back in November on the 737 MAX. It’s been controversial,
- Less distance between seats than ever before
- Less distance between extra legroom and first class seats, too
- Smaller lavatories
- No seat back entertainment
- But bigger overhead bins and satellite wifi
One American Airlines pilot called the small lavatory ‘the worst experience in the world’.
Prior to the plane going into service, and before American began retrofitting its fleet with this new interior, the airline’s CEO Doug Parker hadn’t even tried the product. That was true at least as of the end of May even. And it told me that domestic passenger experience isn’t central to the product the airline believes it is offering.
Employees keep asking about the product, and asking about the lavatories. They find it embarrassing and believe it speaks to where the airline is going. At American’s employee town hall with CEO Doug Parker last week one flight attendant raised this again,
We’re all here because we love American Airlines and .. we want to continue to what we’re doing and we support our passengers. It seems like over the last couple of years it hasn’t been that, not to mention the MAX 737 where the bathrooms are smaller and not to push you under the bus, but have you been in back of that bathroom? And that’s our main concern with flight attendants that passengers feel like they can’t even get in the bathroom.
Parker revealed that he’s finally been in the bathroom and he thinks it’s great.
Yes I’ve been in those bathrooms. I’m a pretty big guy. I do not want to dismiss this point because I’ve heard from enough of our flight attendants. But at least the reports I’ve read feel exaggerated to me. I’ve been in there, I’m 6’3″ 240 and I have no problem getting in or out of the bathroom, or using the restroom or turning around in it or things like you gotta walk in, I saw some reports that said you’ve got to back out. Look, it is smaller. Absolutely.
(The airline confirms that while their CEO has been on the aircraft, has seen the lavatory, he still has not flown this plane, or any plane with this interior.)
Parker defends squeezing more seats into their Boeing 737s — they’ve gone from 150 seats before the marger to 160 seats and now with this reconfiguration to 172 — as doing “what we’re supposed” since it allows them to “take care of more customers. It allows 6 more seats on the airplane versus having a larger restroom. And again we’re not the only airline that’s going to have these bathrooms.”
Although he concedes if customers book away from American Airlines because they deem the experiemce worse than other carriers they may have to reconsider: “Look let me just say this: if we get to the point that our customers feel as though that’s not the right tradeoff we may change it.”
One change American is making is to the lavatory doors. But it won’t make the lavatory experience better. Parker explains,
What I know is a problem is that the two doors are both open into each other. If both doors are open it blocks the aisle and the doors run into each other that we are fixing. One of the doors will be a bi-fold door so that that won’t happen anymore, I think that will help with the concerns we’ve heard.
American initially installed doors that opened out, rather than opening in, because it takes up an extra inch of space inside the lavatory that way. They were already taking away so much space it seemed to make sense to return that inch to the customer. However the doors opening out bang against each other in the back of the aircraft. Customers often need flight attendant help to get out. So they’re going to go with the doors that fold inward.
So they’re going to solve one problem by taking away even more space from the already small lavatories, when the real problem is the size of the lavatories themselves not the door.
The flight attendant responded that American is degrading its product, playing a me-too game and not trying to be the best.
In the day we were leaders with Mr. Crandall. And it seems like being here for 38 years, it doesn’t seem like we’re leaders we’re followers and that’s what concerns me. And I just want us to be leaders as this whole group whether you’ve been here 10 years, 15 years, 20 years we want to be leaders not followers. My question to you is what are we going to do in the future to be followers in your perspective?
Parker took exception to that. He believes American is putting a ton of money into its product and doing the right thing for customers. Only his lack of prior interest in even experiencing the product shows, because he doesn’t seem to know his own airline’s product plans for the fleet. He responds,
Now please take his mike. No I’m just having fun. … As it relates to that airplane then and again I want to be clear on this.. I know this perception has somehow gotten in, and it’s on us on and we’ve got to figure out a way to make sure we explain this better. We’re spending so much money on our product right now to somehow have the view that we’re degrading the product when indeed we’re spending so much money that certainly shouldn’t be the case.
To be fair American is spending a great deal of money on,
- employee raises
- international business class lounges
- catering (though not necessarily improving the food)
And they’re spending a ton of money reconfiguring the domestic fleet to be less comfortable for the customer. While they’re investing in parts of the product, they are degrading a different part — the one experienced by the bulk of their passengers.
Part of the money is going through and making sure all the aircraft have the same seats as we go through the merger. When we do that some aircraft are going to have more seats on them than they did before, but they’re getting to where another aircraft already was.
This is simply not true. American’s 737s had 150 seats before the merger. That was increased to 160 and this was standardized. They’re going to 172 seats.
He denies they’re increasing the density of their aircraft, saying they’re just doing this on the 737 MAX. That’s not true.
We’re not going through the whole fleet and adding a bunch of seats to airplanes or taking out larger bathrooms and putting in smaller ones. We ordered a new airplane this product existed, it allowed us to get on that airplane at the pitch we have on other aircraft one more row of seats we thought that was the right trade-off. And again I don’t view that at all as any sort of effort to degrade the product, or anything like that, it’s just a different product that’s available now and that allowed us to get 6 more seats on the airplane than we would have otherwise on a brand new airplane. But we aren’t going to put that on all the other airplanes or anything like that.
American is going through and retrofitting its existing fleet to offer a standard domestic product with less space between seats, smaller lavatories, no seat back video, along with bigger overhead bins and satellite wifi. That effort is called ‘Project Oasis.’
They absolutely are “taking out larger bathrooms and putting in smaller ones.” They’re doing this with hundreds of planes. And it should concern investors, I’d think, that the CEO appears not to know that. But he still hasn’t tried his airline’s new standard domestic product.