American Reveals Plenty of Bells and Whistles for Domestic Aircraft

American, Seats

American continues to leak bits and pieces of its planned onboard improvements, and now we know some more about its planned offering for domestic flights. What do I think? The amenities all sound great to me as a traveler, but I’m not sure they make sense for a domestic fleet.

Yesterday’s announcement was about what will happen on the new A319/A321/737-800 deliveries that will come into the fleet starting next July. These 230 airplanes will replace a lot of the MD-80s, 757s, and yes, the 767-200s that currently fly from New York to LA and San Francisco. Want to see what they’ll look like? Watch the first part of this video:

Now, don’t get too excited. The only thing you see here that will be on the entire new domestic fleet is the coach cabin. There will be Main Cabin Extra (extra legroom) seating in addition to regular coach. Every seat will have full in-seat video (which it seems will not be free in coach) along with a power outlet (which I assume will be free in coach). There will, of course, be wifi onboard.

So what about the rest of those fancy seats in the video? Those are supposed to be for the small subset of A321s that will replace the airline’s 767-200s on the New York to LA and San Francisco runs. American is effectively planning to build its own version of United’s p.s., soon after United has decided to mostly dismantle it.

There will be 36 seats in coach along with another 36 in Main Cabin Extra. Then there will be 20 flat beds in business class along with 10 flat beds in first class (the same seat American will have as international business class). These airplanes first get delivered starting in November 2013. That means those tired old 767-200s still have a couple years left in them.

So what do I think of all this? As a passenger, I love it. I mean, who doesn’t want in-seat video, power outlets, and wifi? Isn’t that why everyone fawns over Virgin America? But the real question is whether or not people will pay extra for all these goodies or if this will shift high dollar business traffic from other airlines. One of those need to happen for this to succeed.

For starters, I’m a little surprised that American is planning on putting in-seat video in every seat. Other airlines don’t seem to think that’s a worthwhile investment. Delta has some airplanes with it, but it has backed off ever since it realized that inflight internet could provide a great passenger experience without such heavy investment in infrastructure. US Airways, clearly an airline with an extreme view on this, hasn’t seen the point of any kind of video for years (domestically). It just doesn’t see it as something that drives ticket purchase on domestic runs. And as frustrating as I find it, just about every other airline seems to think that investing in power outlets is unnecessary as battery life grows.

Second, what about first class on those transcontinental flights? Nobody else sees value in that offering anymore either. Even United is going to just coach and business. Of course, maybe that’s why American has decided to stick with it. It thinks there’s still some demand for it, and now it has a captive audience. But enough for 10 seats per flight? I don’t know. Regardless, American is coming to different conclusions from other airlines that are currently doing quite well for themselves and that should make people wary.

How is it that American is coming to such different conclusions? This is an airline that has long complained about having costs higher than others and is saying it needed to file bankruptcy just to make cuts in those areas. But all of these bells and whistles are going to add costs. Like I said, I love the idea as a passenger, but then again, that’s how I feel about Virgin America’s onboard product. It doesn’t mean I’ll pay more to fly them.

The cynical side of me might think American was cooking up this plan on paper in order to curry favor with those who will determine its fate in bankruptcy; to show that it has some kind of concrete plan. Maybe this won’t ever happen. But I don’t think that’s the case. With deliveries starting next July, things probably need to be finalized fairly soon. Of course, if a merger ends up happening, things can change quickly.

For me, the jury is still out. American is trying to go upscale across the board, matching more of a long haul product offering on the domestic fleet. I’m actually really curious to see if American can move high-dollar market share with all these bells and whistles, when they’re finally installed. It’s failed in that effort before.

Remember More Room Throughout Coach? American made a mistake rolling out extra legroom to the entire coach cabin instead of having a sub-cabin like United because a lot of people just want cheap fares, especially on domestic flights. And with this kind of heavy investment, American will have a lot of cost to cover that its competitors won’t have. That makes it tougher to offer low fares.

As a passenger, I hope it works. But I’m highly skeptical.

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55 comments on “American Reveals Plenty of Bells and Whistles for Domestic Aircraft

  1. I always thought a x-atl style Business class lie-flat product should work on these NY-LA/SF runs because they could probably sell this product but I don’t see the need for the first class style seats unless they can actually sell a large number of these seats (which seems doubtful to me).

  2. How many people will really lie flat on a cross country flight? By the time you take off and get to a point where they let you put the seat flat, you would not get that much time to sleep before having to prepare the cabin for landing and must put the seat back up. Yes night flights from SF/LA to NYC the seats would get more use, but overall it seems a waste of money to put them in just to say you have them so “We’re better then everyone else”.

    1. I fly AA on the transcon route from JFK to LAX or SFO a good 2-3 times per month in the First Class cabin on the 767-200 and I can say that I’m thrilled to see these enhancements. Regarding sleep, I can typically squeeze in a 90 minute nap towards the end of the flight… I can certainly see value in these new flat bed seats on the West Coast to East Coast redeye flights… It’s always nice to arrive well-rested back into New York (assuming you can get 3-4 hours of quality sleep).

      1. Ryan – Do you pay for First or upgrade? And looking at the difference between the new First and new Business cabins, do you think there’s going to be much of a benefit that’s worth buying First over Business on the new airplanes?

        1. I typically upgrade from Biz but have purchased F fares in the past. I prefer F primarily because of the seat on the 767-200 (I like the solo “Captain Kirk” seats on the 762 in F), as the difference in meal service is not that significant.

          I don’t see much of a benefit in purchasing F on the new A321s unless the soft product (meals, amenities, etc.) is that much greater than Business Class.

  3. AA is just putting inseat video now? its 2012!

    Air Canada has had inseat video, AC and USB for over 6 years now!
    And Air Canada has been installing wifi also

    Duane

    1. Yes, it’s always scary when AC is the market leader in something… doesn’t say much for the competition!

      To be fair though, AC’s IFE is non-functional half the time, so they’ve really only had in-seat video for 3 of the last 6 years. ;)

    2. Speaking of AC, I would love to see YYZ-SFO-MEL someday, maybe when the 787s arrive. There’s no non-stop SFO-MEL anymore since QF shifted to DFW, and that plus an international product for the transcon would do well to my way of thinking.

  4. I agree with Brett… pasengers will love this. I see this as a tool no one else has to build passenger loyalty and cater to the all important business traveler. U.S. Air would never do this and in fact may decry it! CO now UA has video in every seat on its new 737-800s and passeners love. Maybe AA can bring back that old slogan, Someting Special in the Air. Altho it will be awhile before UA could think of saying Fly the Friendly skies.

  5. Looks very nice. Not sure about the logic of having First Class on those transcon routes, surely business is good enough? Interestingly BA has just announced that they are adding flat-bed business to the A321s that it is inheriting from BMI on those Eurasian routes, Almaty, Tiblisi etc. Historically BA has only had Club Europe on those type of routes, which are similar in length as US transcon.

  6. On the transcons, it’s amazing how we’ve gone from the twin-aisle spaciousness of 747s and DC-10s and later venerable 767s. And now to regress to a ’70s design, the single-aisle 737 and A320 families. And the 777s never even had a chance at cross-country except for the rare UA positioning flites into IAD from SFO.I know there’s a solid economic justification but it’s all very counterintuitive … the market grows, the airplanes get smaller. Yes, the flights are much more frequent. Let’s carry it to the extreme … put regional jets everywhere and have half-hourly departures all day long.

    1. Have to agree with BCH 100%. Going from a widebody to a narrow body on a route is going backwards, no matter how many bells and whistles you put in the cabin. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone that thinks an A321 is more roomy than a 767.

      This same argument goes for smaller cities going from mainline metal to regional jets. The whole “business demands frequency” and thus more flights = smaller aircraft reads to me like a red herring by the airlines. 10,5,2, even 1 year ago I was taking flights on larger aircraft with schedules that allowed for day trips, early out and late return. Today no matter where I go I’m forced into an overnight trip. Also I see a lot more CRJ’s on routes that used to have A320’s and 737’s.

      Sorry to threadjack but I’d prefer less flights, bigger planes.

      1. With a few exceptions I still would rather see frequency over larger planes for domestic flights. Although an A321 isn’t as roomy, it’s perfectly fine for transcons, and like other extra features, I really doubt many people will pay more money to fly on a wider airplane.
        CRJs are slightly different, but unless they are used for flights longer than an hour and a half, few people will pay more to avoid them.

        1. I wouldn’t necessarily pay more for a widebody. My argument is to keep the available seats the same, just cut the frequency and make the runs with bigger jets. Theoretically the price should stay flat.

  7. Some random thoughts:

    1. Surely there are a lot of people in the entertainment/IT people flying out of LAX/SFO on corporate accounts that would pay for this improved service.

    2. What’s the big deal with seat-to-seat texting? I’m seeing it advertised more and more as this great new feature on modern planes, but does anyone actually use it?

    3. On a tangential note, I like the term “Main Cabin”. It sounds nicer than “Economy” or “Coach”, less degrading to those stuck at the back of the bus.

    1. Arcanum – On point 1, my understanding is that recent changes to Hollywood contracts mean that First isn’t a necessary as long as there is an acceptable biz class, which I assume means a flat bed. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any demand, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s demand for 10 seats on a flight.

  8. Maybe you’ve written about this already, but I’m impressed with 777-300ER business class seat shown on the video. They appear to be the same as Cathay Pacific’s new business class seat. If so, it will be by far the best international business class seat offered by any U.S. carrier.

  9. So what would be a better solution? Offer more constructive critique and a solution to the problem rather than just highlighting all the negatives as is always seems to be the case with AA

    1. ry – Seriously? I think the solution is pretty clearly stated – don’t bother with in-seat video and rely on wifi instead. Also, don’t bother with First Class on the transcons.

  10. It’s very SIMPLE. Eliminating Seats in Coach lowers the number of staff you have to have on board, according to the FAA. IF they have 60 seats in coach, they need one flight attendant. 61 Seats they need two. 120 seats, they need two, but for 121 seats they need 3 staff. Cutting one Crew member from a plane that normally takes 5 is a 20% cut in employee staff wages… The 2nd Highest Cost (Used to be the HIGHEST)… now it’s 2nd after Fuel.

    It’s NOT about travler comfort, it’s cutting back 20% on their 2nd highest cost, largest number of Aircraft. (Another reason they are going with B-737’s and A320’s whose TYPICAL crews are 5… but can now be made 4.

    1. That’s not right. The rule is one flight attendant per 50 seats and it has nothing to do with class of service. It’s based on the total number of passenger seats on the airplane.

  11. The introduction of Main Cabin Extra to domestic flights seems like a good, if overdue, move. As a mostly business traveler, my company won’t pay for first class, but they might swing for Main Cabin Extra, or even otherwise, I’d be tempted to pay the $50 or whatever out of pocket for the extra legroom. It’s also a decent consolation prize for elites who can’t snag an upgrade, though if they’re going to provide the option of purchasing the seats for an extra fee like they do on international flights, availability is going to be an issue like it is on UA. Generally, though, looks like this is another push for ancillary revenue; they must be betting that the additional seat fees they’ll collect for Main Cabin Extra will offset the reduced number of coach seats. I actually think that might work, at least on some routes.

    The fancy pants transcon service though? Not quite sold on that. Maybe as you say, AA sees a viable market that UA abandoned, or as another poster noted, it’s a stealth way of cutting labor costs. As someone who lives smack dab in the middle of the country, I can’t really comment on whether the fancy seats would be worth a premium for a transcon flight – but even if they are, I’m skeptical that AA can command such a premium in the first place given the cut-throat competition on these routes. Plus, it’s not like AA has a “premium” reputation when it comes to service.

    P.S. I’ve always wondered why AA isn’t calling their premium economy cabin “Main Cabin ExtrAA”. Seems like it would fit in better with the rest of their branding, i.e. “AAdvantage”, or the predecessor to Skylink at DFW, the “TrAAin”.

  12. ” Every seat will have full in-seat video (which it seems will not be free in coach) along with a power outlet (which I assume will be free in coach)”

    I almost fell out of my chair laughing at that.

    And then I started thinking about whether an airline could manage to charge for use of a power outlet.

    Now, I am sad.

    I run the gamut of emotions when reading cranky.

  13. Reverses AA’s prior “BYOD” approach, exactly because the approach they are nw undertaking is CAPEX heavy and has a technological lifetime that is a small fraction of its functional lifetime, which is to say it’s heavy baggage for the last two thirds of its life-in-seat.

    1. And its probably CapEx heavy because they’re planning on having more money to spend once they get out of bankruptcy. Basically the argument that I guess people have been making for years inside of AA for better IFE etc, that hasn’t cleared the CapEx hurdle, now clears it..

  14. I’m surprised no one has said this yet, so I’ll say it:
    Parker and Crew over at US Airways, please hurry up and announce that merger and put us all out of our misery looking at American Airlines’s dreams. They’re living in a fantasy land over there in Fort Worth.

  15. I know there will be individuals who say that AA’s track record flies in the face of this statement, but I’m willing to give AA’s leadership benefit of the doubt on this. They know they have aging, inefficient 767 aircraft to replace on the transcontinental route. As they chose the A321, and then chose the interiors, I’m willing to bet they engaged in an analysis about 3-cabin vs. 2-cabin layouts and chose a 3-cabin layout based on the amount of money they earn in the current 3-cabin layout. My understanding is that AA really does play the #1 position in the JFK-LAX market (commanding a higher fare than its competitors) and plans to position its product to match.

    As for the non-transcontinental routes, yes, AA’s improvements make at least this customer aim to pick AA over a competitor. I won’t necessarily pay more (or vastly more) to fly AA, but if the cost to fly AA is equal to say, US, yes, I’ll choose AA to have a far better on-board experience. This is especially true for the addition of in-seat power — as a business traveler who aims to get a lot of work done on planes and whose company buys terrible laptops with terrible battery life, a power port is a godsend. [AA actually already excels on this front; their current fleet has more power ports in coach (albeit only in some rows, but you learn to know those rows) than their competitors.]

    1. Well, if they were doing well and making money before announcing these changes, then yes, I’d be quite optimistic. But will they really be able to charge more for tickets to make up for the significant loss in capacity. NYC-LAX and NYC-SFO are very popular and important markets, but that also means that there is lots of of competition (UA, DL, B6, VX nonstops, and more airlines/flights with connections) so they can’t command fares that are much higher. Just because they are there doesn’t mean that people are paying more for them.

    2. CP – Well, let’s check it out. This is Q4 2011 average fare data courtesy of masFlight

      AA $321.20 total, $223.43 in coach
      B6 $227.16 total
      DL $261.32 total, $254.09 in coach
      UA $388.82 total, $359.51 in coach
      VX $311.54 total, $307.76 in coach

      This shows that American does a terrible job in coach, but that’s no surprise because it has a ton of coach seats. That’s why United changed to p.s. all those years ago – it got rid of a bunch of coach seats and that raised fares. It certainly does better in the premium cabin but does it need 3 cabin? That remains to be seen.

      1. Thanks for the data-driven answer, Cranky. (AA aside, it’s interesting that DL doesn’t command more revenue on that route, particularly given their desire to ‘own’ New York.)

        At the very least, I think these data indicate that it’s a smart move on AA’s part to go with a smaller coach cabin. If they are able to boost their average coach fare, these data would look really great, I would think. And, given the drag that the low coach fare puts on their overall performance in the data set above, I think the data are evidence that AA must command a pretty hefty amount of premium traffic.

  16. Please forgive a dumb question. Can this aircraft consistently fly non-stop JFK to west coast? I live mid continent so don’t experience domestic long haul very often. But I seem to recall seeing Jet Blue and other A32x operators buying gas in Salt Lake and other cities just short of the California state line… especially in the winter.

    1. million miler – with only 100 seats, I’m sure it can fly nonstop across the country. But with a normal load, I don’t think it can.

      1. US is using A321’s for transcon from CLT and PHL. Not sure how frequently they have to gas up but even JetBlue does this only when headwinds are strong in winter.

        1. Zack – Wow, you’re right. I knew Charlotte was in there but that’s a lot shorter. But if they can do Philly, then you’re right, it should work. My mistake.

          1. US also flies the odd 319 or 320 to SFO and does daily service from PHL to SAN, SMF and PDX on 320’s. On occasion, the 320’s make flag stops, but the 321’s do not.

  17. Is there anyway AA could just take US’s management instead of a full-scale merger? They seem to be a more of a conservative bunch especially when it comes to new routes/destinations/retreating from competition [at least in recent years].

    Other than direct aisle access and greater pitch, why would a customer upgrade from one lie-flat seat to another? This doesn’t make much sense. What AA should have done is upgrade some of their 757-200’s with 16 lie flat biz seats [similar to the CO ones on their 757’s], 26 domestic business class, 48 main cabin extra (couldn’t they have called this AAdvantagEconomy?) and 60 coach which is 150 seats. UA is doing this with their PS service by dropping First and adding coach.

    1. Zack Rules – But the whole point is that the full scale merger is was works because of the combined networks. Nobody wants US management with the same AA route map.

      1. That is true, US does adds value to the AA network although much of it is made possible only by US’s lower cost base.

        I guess what frustrates me is that AA has pretty good hubs/network already (except for JFK/LGA slot issues/competition) but couldn’t make a go of it because of labor issues (no ultra long hauls such as MIA-Tokyo or DFW-Beijing) and timidness to add new routes/destinations (the old UA suffered from this as well). US seems more willing to experiment and at the very least, that willingness to try new routes is very much needed at AA. Granted, many of the places US flies would not be possible with AA higher costs/labor regs. But there are probably 50 dom/int’l cities that AA could add, some with competition (JFK-Geneva) and others without (MIA-Cartagena). Sure some of them wouldn’t work but even if just half make money, surely that is good for an airline?

  18. Since the First configuration is 1×1 and Business is 2×2, is it safe to assume that the 10 First seats take the space of 20 Business seats? In that case, does AA need to sell the First class tickets at almost double the Business to make it worthwhile? I realize not all costs are per square foot, but can First class tickets in the domestic market command 2x the fare of Business class and in enough quantity to overcome the potential if they were selling an additional 20 Business seats, or more coach for that matter?

    I think you’ve answered No to this already, but just thinking through the basic math.

  19. I really love how the 777-300 FC seat swivels to the side! So cool to be able to work at your seat AND gaze out the window!! While the hard product doesn’t compare to EK, SQ, CX or KE it’s not bad for a U.S. carrier.

  20. Whenever I see some fancy new thing. I just know we are in for a price rise. Yes the seats are cool and yes I would love to travel in the new planes. I notice you say about a fee for coach passengers to use the seat back TV. So it appears that coach travellers are going to be a little worse off

  21. Cranky, perhaps you are overestimating the cost of these bells and whistles. The fanciest product is a tiny subset of the A321 order, likely limited to JFK – SFO and JFK LAX. If UA/CO is getting rid of their three class service, that leaves a monopoly to AA so on some level it makes sense to keep the three class on those routes. As for the fancier coach interior, it likely costs less to include the screens and powerports in a new order than it does to retrofit existing planes. That combined with the potential additional revenue streams (charge for movies AND wifi!) likely make the numbers work.

    1. JohnG – The costs I’m primarily talking about are the in-seat video and power outlet amenities in coach. First Class on the transcon airplanes is a whole different story, but ultimately that’s on a tiny portion of the fleet and insignificant except in that it shows how the airline makes decisions.

      So yes, it is cheaper to install in-seat video and power on a new outlet than refurbishing, but it’s still quite expensive to do. And then there are issues with ongoing maintenance and repair. We’re talking about something like 35,000+ monitors being installed. That’s a lot.

      1. Ongoing maintenance and repair I’ll give you – but I suspect that like the new planes themselves, the in seat video and power option that Airbus and Boeing will be including has some creative financing that greatly reduces the costs

  22. My guess is that part of the reason for 10 F seats is that 10 seats fill the space in front of the second door, so the first class cabin can be set off from the business cabin. Maybe AA would have preferred 6 or 8 seats in F, but then the business cabin would be split around the door. AA can always oversell business and upgrade business pax to F if they can’t fill F.

  23. I would disagree that UA is “mostly dismantling” their ps flights. What they are doing is replacing their First and Business Class seats with the ex-Continental BusinessFirst flat-bed seats. Having flown on both, I can say that the “ex-Con” flat beds are superior to and more conducive to sleep than the current ps First-Class seats, which aren’t truly flat, but angled. And they are FAR superior to the ps biz-class seats, which are just old-fashioned recliners. As far as coach, I’m not sure if they’re keeping the current all-Economy Plus configuration or downgrading to true economy, or perhaps a combination of both. But as one who gladly pays extra to sit up front, I see this as an improvement, not a downgrade.

    1. Dr. T – Whether or not it’s an upgrade or downgrade has nothing to do with the fact that it is a dismantling. p.s. will now have flat beds in biz with a mix of regular coach and Economy Plus in the back. With that in mind, the difference between an international 757 and a p.s. 757 is fairly minimal. (But I would agree with you that it’s mostly an upgrade.)

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