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.