American Upgrades Business Class, Downgrades Coach on Widebody Fleet

Last Friday I received an invitation from American to an event that would show off the “company’s aircraft modernization plans while onboard an American wide-body jet.” Sounded good, but that event was American's New Widebody Refurbyesterday and with less than a week’s notice, I couldn’t make time. I was, of course, eagerly awaiting the news. In the end, it wasn’t quite the announcement I would have hoped. The news is good for business class (eventually), but mixed at best (that’s being generous) for coach.

It’s very strange that they brought everyone to Dallas for this event, because while they did hold it on a widebody, it was on an airplane that didn’t have the new product onboard. Why? Because the work to upgrade the seats on the fleet won’t even begin until 2014. Why bother to announce something that’s two years away from even starting? Seems like a show for the bankrupcty court to me. I found it highly amusing that the same day, US Airways put out a release announcing it was done putting flat beds on its A330s. American still hasn’t started.

For the 10 new 777-300ERs being delivered starting this year, there isn’t much news over what has already been leaked out by the airline over the last few months. One thing that still hasn’t been cleared up is whether American will be doing 9 or 10-abreast on the 777s. There were conflicting reports from the event, but looking at the seat counts, it looks like the airline is going with the tighter 3-4-3, 10-abreast configuration on all 777s in coach. But let’s forget about the 777-300ER and instead look at the existing fleet, which was what yesterday’s announcement was really about.

Boeing 777-200 – 47 in the fleet
The current flagship aircraft will be undergoing a fairly dramatic makeover. It looks like it will get the same seats as on the 777-300ER throughout with one big difference. All 47 airplanes will lose First Class and become two-cabin. Hmm, maybe they’ll just take the First Class seats on these planes and plop them on to the 777-300ERs. This means that the only airplanes with true international First Class in the entire American fleet will be those 10 lonely 777-300ERs. That’s a big change for the 47 airplanes that have it today.

Let’s do a little math. The 777-200s today have 16 seats in First and 37 in Business. Those 53 seats will be replaced with “up to” 45 of the new Business Class seats. I would imagine that would take up about same or even a little more floor space even with fewer seats. But the more interesting math is in the back of the bus, where it goes from 190 coach seats to “up to” 45 Main Cabin Extra and “up to” 170 coach seats. I don’t see how that’s in any way possible to net 25 more coach seats unless the airline adds an extra seat in each row. This has to be 10-abreast in a 3-4-3 configuration, unless they’re using “up to” to mean they might back down. But with Main Cabin Extra, American’s version of Economy Plus, at 45 seats, it seems that cabin will be 5 rows of 9-abreast seating no matter what.

If you can sit up there, you’re in much better shape, but it might be tough. American elites and elites on partner airlines will be able to sit there for free, so that’s going to mean a lot of demand. It’s even more pronounced on the 767 as I mention below.

If you do end up in the back, American hopes to make you forget about that by having a bunch of audio/video on demand programming and internet access, just like on the 777-300ER.

Boeing 767-300
The workhorse of the fleet is getting a makeover as well, um, sort of. Well, ok, some the fleet is eventually getting a makeover beginning in a couple years.

There are 58 767-300s in the fleet today and “up to half” will be fixed up and made to look pretty. There will be a flat bed in business with direct aisle access, but I assume it’s not the same seat that will be on the 777s. That seat just doesn’t fit very well into a cabin the width of a 767, so the airline will have to use something else. While this is just my assumption, it seems to be confirmed by the fact that unlike on the 777s, inflight entertainment won’t be in the seat. That’s right; American will continue to distribute tablets for business class travelers as is done today.

In coach, it doesn’t look like things are changing much at all. Today, the 767s have overhead monitors, and I’ve confirmed with American that’s not changing. That’s just weak.

The only change appears to be the addition of a very tiny section of Main Cabin Extra seating on this airplane. By tiny, I mean a mere 14 seats in two rows. Compare this to United which puts more than 50 seats in Economy Plus and Delta with 30 to 40 in Economy Comfort on the same aircraft type and this is not very competitive for all those elites looking for relief.

Why would American do that? Probably because it’s easy. The new 767 configuration will have 167 seats in coach, the same number that currently sit behind the overwing galley and lavs. There are four rows of coach in front of that galley which will apparently become two rows of Main Cabin Extra (and will likely lose some space thanks to the new biz configuration). So it will be very nice up there if you can find a way to get a seat. Competition is going to be very tough to get one of those and there are going to be some seriously unhappy elites.

The way I look at this is that American is doing the bare minimum it can get away with on the 767 until it retires those airplanes. The problem is that apparently the first won’t be retired until “2015(ish)”. Who knows how long it will take for there to be no airplanes left with the old seats. It could be years and years.

None of the timing issues of this whole thing will stop American from crowing about how it will offer direct aisle access to every one in business class. I counted NINE mentions of direct aisle access in the press release. Why the heck is it focusing so much on that? Because it’s pretty much the only thing that differentiates American from United in a good way. Delta has long been working toward its plan to have direct aisle access for all business class seats, and it will get there way before American. But United continues to have all window seats blocked from the aisle by another seat. And on pre-merger United 777s, there are also two middle seats in each row that don’t touch the aisle. So this is American’s effort to show that it’s better than United.

I’m really mixed on this announcement. In Business Class, it’s a very clear improvement. But coach travelers are really getting the raw end of the deal, despite American’s effort to de-emphasize the bad news. Yes, on the 777, coach passengers get better in-seat entertainment, but they also get narrower seats with one more per row. On the 767 in coach, it seems to me that nothing changes at all. The 767s won’t even get wifi. Main Cabin Extra is nice, but on the 767 there are so few seats that I bet it makes people more angry than not because they can’t get it.

In other words, this looks like the airline has put together a nice show for the court to make it look like it’s really making big changes, but there are some real negatives here. Even forgetting about those issues, the retrofit doesn’t begin for two more years, so this announcement is quite premature from a traveler standpoint.

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