American Upgrades Business Class, Downgrades Coach on Widebody Fleet

777, American

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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45 comments on “American Upgrades Business Class, Downgrades Coach on Widebody Fleet

  1. More of the same from AA management…put forth half-a$$ed ideas and see if they will stick instead of being forward thinking like DL and US…I guess it is a goal to be better than UA. AAdvantage is something that AA has going for them (in a BIG way) and this is just going to make their elites mad! Direct aisle access in business is great! 10 across & no personal entertainment in coach is not. Really, tablets in business? REALLY?

    1. D-ROCK – The 10 across in coach is on the 777 and that does have personal entertainment. The 767 is the one that doesn’t have that.

  2. To have people come to DFW and show them a plane that doesn’t have the new product is stupid. Those people could have stayed home and looked at an artist concept of the new look.

    A lot can happen by the time the new look appears so they shouldn’t be faulting something that people will forget by then.

    Funny how airlines make the coach passengers have to suffer so they can try and get more money out of the first/business passengers. But they can’t have an all first/business product as they need the coach passengers to help fill the space and pay the bills.

    At least Ryanair lets it’s passengers know the only thing they care about is the passengers wallet and not the passengers themselves. Multi cabin airlines have to trick the first/business passengers think they are getting something good for the higher fare they pay, but don’t toot the fact the coach passengers will ‘pay’ for it.

    1. That really does seem insane, doesn’t it? Why bother? This is clearly window dressing for BK court but don’t know what it really accomplishes. Any analyst with half a clue will realize this is pretty half baked.

  3. Cranky, I think you make fair points about the muddled announcement and the timing. While I agree that it seems like a suboptimal experience for the coach passenger, going to 10-abreast seating is (I would assume) an attempt to get more revenue — and you have been very vocal about AA’s revenue problems!

    I am not bothered by tablets in business at all, if those are loaded with decent options.

    1. CP – That is true that I’m vocal about AA’s revenue problems, but I don’t know that this is the answer. The seats will be significantly less wide than direct competition with United and Delta. When an airline like Air NZ does it, there isn’t a ton of direct competition. (Air NZ also did a bunch of other great things.) But when AA does it, it can squeeze more seats on but it’s revenue per seat may go down.

    1. Too funny, I actually read this comment and had to think about whether or not I posted it. Took me a second to see it was from Bill “n” DC instead of Bill “from” DC!

  4. Disappointing about their very limited extra section. Also, coach seats are already too narrow for comfort. I couldn’t imagine how much worse they will be even narrower, especially given the average American keeps getting bigger.

  5. So for most of a decade, AA passengers get to roll the dice on whether or not they get a refurbished 763 — or a beater. Simply mah-velous.

  6. The only time that I really care about inflight entertainment is on long trans-ocieantic/continental flights and AA seems to be one of the last major airlines to run planes on 11 hour flights without personal TVs. I flew on an American 767 from EZE to JFK and couldn’t belize how obsolete the entertainment was even in Business Class I was trying to finish a movie and got really annoyed how they insist on collecting the overside laptop entertainment systems (and Bose headphones) when we must have had about an hour left inflight. It amazes me that there not announcing an upgrade. I flew Continental down on that trip in Coach from Houston to EZE and they at least had an albeit old (this was 2009) different channels looping entertainment system at least with PTVs.

    1. Fair point, but other airlines have inconsistency, too. United flies 747s that don’t have in-seat video in coach. (I think they have announced plans to upgrade that fleet, though.) Some United 777s still have looping video on the seatback TVs.

      1. CP – United will not be adding in seat video on the dreadful 747s. Instead, they’re just going to offer streaming video options for people with their own devices. And no, there won’t be power onboard in coach despite those aircraft operating 15+ hour stage lengths.

  7. I see so many negative comments about US Airways on airline blogs that it makes me wonder if any of the “pundits” have flown the airline in the last five years. The current US Airways is not your father’s US Air, Allegheny, PSA, America West or Piedmont (although I always had good flights on America West and understand Piedmont and PSA were good airlines, but I digress …). US Airways already has lie flat seats on all of its A330s. Obviously, it’s not investing too heavily in its 767-200s because they’ll be gone in the next few years.

    More to the point, part of the difficulty with airlines has been the lack of profitability. It’s hard to put money into capital expenditures when there’s no money to spend. One would hope that increased profitability will lead to a better in flight experience. There have been many businesses that have economized themselves into Chaper 11.

    Maybe it hasn’t dawned on American that one way to reduce capacity is to reduce the number of seats on the aircraft. jetBlue seems to do fine with having fewer seats than it could cram onto its A320s and E190s. Obviously, you don’t want to reduce the number of seats too much, either. You do have to generate enough revenue to make a buck or two. But what do I know.

    1. Part of JetBlue reducing seats on their A320s were to get it from 156 to 150 seats. They lose the 6 seats of potential revenue, but they also reduce costs, since the FAA requires one flight attendant per 50 passengers, so by reducing the seat count from 156 to 150 they save on labor. AFAIK, JetBlue’s E190s have always had only 100 seats..

  8. after reading this blog entry, I believe that the US Air deal is more likely to happen. AA management is flailing, and this will become obvious in BK court.

    1. Rex – That’s not what the press release says. Are you saying the press release is incorrect?

      “The retrofitted 767-300ERs will also feature 14 Main Cabin Extra seats with four to six inches more legroom than a standard Main Cabin seat. The Main Cabin of the retrofitted 767-300ERs will have 167 seats.”

  9. While I fully understand the “need” to upgrade the business and first class offerings it is really starting to wear thin. In order to subsidize the new seats and features the coach class gets squeezed again. On international routes it isn’t as if the big carriers are competing against the JetBlues or Southwests. They are competing against other large established carriers. So why are they forcing coach passengers into continually less comfortable conditions? Thank goodness for the likes of KLM and those like them that still treat coach as a valuable part of the product offering.

  10. Thanks Cranky for telling it how it is. It has been so disconcerting for AA employees to see the American Airlines’ experience fall so far behind the competition. It works against everything the principles on which American was built and has cause so many members of the American Airlines family; workers and customers to question the leadership.

    As negative as all of the back and forth between labor and management may seem from the outside, American’s people have no choice but to raise the volume and ask the public to look at what is happening to what was once one of the world’s greatest airlines and to help us take action before it is too late.

    I was terminated for speaking up, but I am not giving up on American Airlines and thanks again for speaking the truth!

  11. At the risk of sounding bobo, it is a pain when you are seated on a 767 in biz without direct aisle access. Especially on an all-nighter. As far as the fact there will STILL be no personal IFE, that’s ridiculous. I wonder why the airline is reticent to give customers what they have come to expect on long haul. The new Galaxy tablets in business are a complete pain – – the chargers never seem to work and render the machines inoperable.

    American has a very long way to go when it comes to IFE, but maybe the new direction under Parker will turn things around… hehe

    P.S. “Main Cabin Extra” (possibly the worst branded product ever in the airline history) will probably disappear within a year of its inception. I don’t understand why AA continues to make these ridiculous decisions. Why no premium economy class? A manager from AF once told me that premium economy was the most lucrative class of service for airlines. Just something to think about.

    1. Two comments:

      – doesn’t nearly everyone have an iPad already? I pretty much only use the IFE system to watch the map as I watch movies of my choosing on my own tablet.

      – regarding AF and premium economy, why did their sister airline KLM go with an Economy Plus type offering instead of a real premium economy product?

      1. Heh, nowhere near everyone has an iPad. I’m a self described Apple whore, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to buy one.

        That being said you can use a built in IFE anytime during the flight. I’ve literally watched TV while taking off and landing on JetBlue. Whereas iPads and even the tablets that American distributes to passengers in their 767 business class cabin have to be stowed during take off and landing..

      2. I’ve got to agree with Nick. There are many of us that don’t have iPads and never will buy an Apple product. I also don’t have a tablet. Additionally, why should I be forced to bring my own entertainment if I am paying for business or first? For me those classes are a treat and only for special trips… the kind of trips that I don’t take a laptop/tablet/ultrabook/smartphone on.

        As for KLM, look at their overall offering compared to AF. They don’t have first class, the fly a very different route set, and they don’t have a premium economy. In fact, KLM fits more with the Delta model and AF fits more with Korean’s model.

    2. No other U.S.-based airline is offering a true Premium Economy product (such as the Qantas product). So, AA is late to the game with Main Cabin Extra (is anyone surprised it’s not Main Cabin ExtrAA?), but the product is aligned with EconomyPlus on UA and Economy Comfort on DL. I accept they may have missed a chance to innovate, but they are not out of line with their competition.

      And, throughout coach on international flights, you get wine!

  12. A word in favor of 3-4-3 seating on the 777: I’ve done it on Air France, and the row of 4 is great for a family of two parents and two small kids (ages 2 and 4 at the time). Of course, that’s a very specific use…

      1. And KLM’s 2-4-3 configuration on its MD-11 was great for everyone. I’ve never understood why that wasn’t a more popular configuration on the 777 and other 9-abreast widebodies.

  13. This is very similar to the airline’s gate advertisements at DFW touting something that says “We will have the youngest fleet in 5 years” as everyone boards MD-80s built in 1988.

    1. I would not say that booking fake companions so the seat next to you is empty and selling first class seats to strangers are “minor offenses.”

      1. i think the article said that they were told how to book fake companions by AA agents making their reservations. not sure if anybody copped to selling the seats.

        the contractual limitations clearly changed over time. if AA simply asked/told these early enrollees to stop doing certain things that became outlawed after they joined, i am guessing most would have readily agreed, especially if they were told the consequence was revocation. actively seeking people to kick out of their lifetime contracts for rules passed after they joined seems extreme.

  14. So if AA is going to 10 abreast in Y how wide will the seats be? This ought to be fun for normal sized adults who find it a little tight now.

    1. Bill,

      When I flew to DXB for CF as part of an Emirates trip, the crew did their best to keep me “in front” of the curtain between biz & coach. I was only able to go back after we landed in Dubai and couldn’t talk to anyone about seat comfort. Now, for the record, I’m a big dude. And I would do *anything* possible to avoid flying in a 3-4-3 configuration unless I can figure out a way to keep that middle seat blocked. Anyone over 180#s and 5’8″ should avoid this configuration at all costs!

      I think there are a few pics of the 777-300 in EK here – however Emirates gives you a bit more legroom (i believe) than AA.

  15. If hope there are airlines left who realise that some people may still, after checking a site like, will book economy fares which are not the absolute cheapest, if it means the seating acknowledges that you have knees and are as wide as your shoulders, not your hips.

  16. They’re giving coach the short side of the deal because premium cabins generate more revenue for the carrier than economy class.

    AA is probably neglecting to make changes to economy class because on the 767 because they don’t plan to keep them in the fleet much longer with the anticipation of the 787. They considered adding PTVs to the 767 in the early 2000s but that was scrapped to cut costs.

  17. Thanks for the real truth of the matter that these so called upgrades don’t even start until 2014. Are you kidding me? And what of the SFO and LAX 767-200’s transcons to JFK? I don’t know how they even stay in the air. But what do you replace them with? If AA wanted to own that route they should fly new 787’s when they start taking deliveries in two years. But then again, they’re botching the bankruptcy so badly, who knows if they’ll even survive.

  18. I think you’re all missing a valuable tool that we can suggest to the AA folks to help them quickly move past their current financial woes.

    Dear AA:

    You’re making this upgrade all too difficult. Come on … just get folks to sit sideways and you can do 10 across in a heartbeat guys.


  19. A lot of people here dont care for the AA employers. And they forget which airline was the only one to refuse the multi million help from the government after 9/11.

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