The CEO of American Airlines Defends Squeezing Seats Closer Together

Doug Parker used the opportunity of a friendly interview to defend his new standard domestic product and argue that cramming more seats into their narrowbody fleet is actually good for the customer.

American had 31 inches as their standard domestic distance from seat back to seat back in economy. They considered squeezing to 29 inches before settling on a 30 inch standard. But, they tell us, not to worry about seats being closer together because less padding in the seats means you have just as much room.

The interviewer pointed out that “there’s one inch of added room up top at eye level” in American’s new seats, without explaining that you can create a hole in the seat in front when you take out seat back entertainment.

Despite greenlighting the a new domestic standard product, and rolling it out to the public in November 2017, their CEO had never flown it until last month. That tells you, I think, that what most customers experience isn’t core to the product. However having flown it he says it’s better,

That 30-in. pitch, having done it myself, is much more comfortable than our existing 31-in. pitch on an MD-80. It feels like a much better product..I think the whole definition of pitch needs to be better understood. The fact is that a seat is an inch [narrower] and more comfortable … The traditional measure of simply pitch, and comparing pitch to aircraft that have very different seats, doesn’t really give the customer what they need to know about the amount of space they have.

While it’s true that there’s just enough personal space in the seat, that’s because it trades off with other elements of comfort. And saying the seat is better than before just means comparing to the worst that US Airways had to offer.

I’ve written since the seats first debuted on the inaugural 737 MAX flight in November that I don’t think the amount of space is worse than the worst coach seats already offered by the airline. It’s not enough space to open a laptop and work, and there are fewer extra legroom seats to escape to in the new configuration.

The reason that 30 inch pitch gives customers as much personal space as 31 inch pitch is because American is using thinner, less padded seats that I find to be fine on a flight up to 3 hours but really uncomfortable after that. And the 737 MAX was designed for long flying, and this seat will be used across the narrowbody fleet on cross country flights and flights to Alaska.

Parker also defends smaller lavatories, saying that’s a customer benefit because it means ‘more room in the rest of the cabin’ though finishing the rest of the sentence it’s to cram more seats into.

In this case, Boeing did a nice job of designing a bathroom that is a couple inches narrower than the one we’ve had in the past. Real estate inside the cabin is incredibly valuable. Our customers care greatly about that, so if we can give them two more inches inside the cabin by having our bathrooms two inches narrower—as Delta has done, as Southwest has done—I think that’s a good thing. We haven’t had complaints about it—we’ve had some [negative] press about it.

There was absolutely no requirement to spend a huge amount of money retrofitting planes with even more seats. American’s 737s had 150 seats at the time of the merger and had already been densified to 160 seats under Parker’s leadership. American says they have a problem attracting premium revenue so they’re making even first class less comfortable with less leg room to squeeze in still more seats.

We’re heading into the sixth year of the merger and legacy US Airways planes are only now getting seat power. This management actually took seat power out of planes when they ran US Airways. Doug Parker told employees “we thought we could live without [seat power].”

I’ve said for a long time that seat back entertainment doesn’t matter to me, though it does seem to matter a great deal to most customers which is why Delta has put seat back video in over 600 planes.

Parker says that other airlines have these lavatories too, like Delta which still invests in seat back video and like Southwest which isn’t retrofitting their fleet to make these lavatories standard and which gives that extra room to the passenger, Southwest seats are farther apart than American’s.

The truth is there is no defense other than we are squeezing more seats into planes. That’s fine if that’s your business model but it’s inconsistent with the simultaneous claim to being a premium carrier.

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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Comments

  1. “American says they have a problem attracting premium revenue.” Might that be because their product keeps getting worse?

  2. You don’t need a three hour flight to figure out these seats are uncomfortable. My back hurt sitting in one earlier this year after only 5 minutes. It reminded me of sitting on the aluminum bleachers at my sons high school football game, but those have more width. The only worse seats are on United E175s.

  3. Going from 150 to 172 seats on the same plane and everyone has the same amount of personal space? That’s hard to figure. I guess poor Parker had to come up with some talking points (even if they lack credibility) to support torturing passengers. I believe the only Delta planes with the midget bathrooms are the 737-900s it acquired several years ago. To date I’ve not seen those hated bathrooms on other Delta planes.

    I’d like to see the proposed regulations on seats that are supposedly coming out. If they can stop the trend of cramming more people into tighter seat arrangements, they are worth a look even if it means slightly higher fares.

  4. Thinner seats feel fine to Parker because he carries about 100 extra pounds of padding around his gut and butt.

  5. OK, Dougie, if this is so – THEN PROVE IT BY **ALWAYS SITTING IN THE 30” PITCH ROWS TOWARDS THE BACK OF THE (SO NOT AN) “OASIS” BOEING 737s & USING THE TEENY TINY TOILETS** u claim are perfectly fine for those who in the end make your exceptionally (obscenely) generous compensation package possible.

    If you agree to do that – and then actually DO do that – then I’ll take you at your word.

    Until then, maybe you’d be better off just shutting your pie hole…

    AActions AAlwAAys speAAk wAAy louder thAAn (your bs empty) words!

    Rrrrrrrrrriiiiiiigggggghhhhtttt?!?!?

  6. “Our customers care greatly about that, so if we can give them two more inches inside the cabin by having our bathrooms two inches narrower—as Delta has done, as Southwest has done—I think that’s a good thing.”

    Sure, if you actually gave any single one of your customers “two more inches.” Does this guy take us for morons? He makes a claim that there is more space for a customer when every single passenger, including First Class, has less. That’s really a fresh interpretation of providing more to the customer.

    No wonder American can’t attract Premium customers, who would want to get stuck on one of these miserable tubes while trying to connect to a widebody?

  7. Start your own airline, give everyone 2 more inches of pitch, charge them 20 bucks more than the competition, and see what happens.

    Parker, of course, is running a real airline, while you’re running a blog. In the real world, every inch of cabin space has a dollar sign on it. If you can put more seats on your airplane, you can compete against airlines that provide 28 inch pitch, and you will almost certainly increase the revenue you obtain from every flight. The obvious solution is to buy new seats that provide as much legroom as older seats but take up less space. Every airline in the world seems to be moving to these new space saving seats because it would be a horrific business idea not to.

  8. I am a Long Time AA Customer, CKey status and I cringe Everytime I hear some ridiculous quote attributed to Parker, an absolute Dope in My Eyes. Wish the Board would shown the Clown The Door. Already. Over all His LCC Ideas That manifestited from His Days at Am West.

  9. @Gary – BINGO ! you hit it right on the head – AA craves the revenue premium enjoyed by DL but is trying to do it without investing in product and operations . DL has enhanced its product and offers a darn reliable operation . Even if you have a nice product , business travelers will book away from an operation that they perceive is unreliable . Facilities are important as well – connecting at DTW is a nice alternative when compared to ORD. Like Gordon Bethune said , you can make a product so cheap that nobody wants to actually buy it .

  10. maybe he should take a page out of jetblue’s playbook. i have never paid for premium transatlantic before mint, it’s probably the most superior domestic product. the big 3 tend to charge more but give a crappy product and service. they’re having a hard time attracting premium revenue because aa execs are a bunch of dinosaurs just collecting a fat check.

  11. Was interesting listening to Gary L and Singapore Airlines exec James Bradbury-Boyd of
    Singapore Airlines in Austin last week. The difference between Singapore and the various statements I’ve heard from AA leaders the past several years was striking. Singapore cares about what their customers think, and works to correct short comings, and American clearly does not do either.

  12. “The interviewer pointed out that “there’s one inch of added room up top at eye level” in American’s new seats, without explaining that you can create a hole in the seat in front when you take out seat back entertainment.”

    This is why I love visiting your blog, Gary.

  13. Wouldn’t it make sense to get rid of the beverage carts and the galleys and just install a coke machine next to the lavs?

  14. “Start your own airline, give everyone 2 more inches of pitch, charge them 20 bucks more than the competition, and see what happens.” – AA did this when it was AA and TWA they didn’t get more customers.

    As we all know people complain about legroom and the like but don’t want to pay extra for it, hence why people put up with Spirit and Allegiant and still complain.

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