American is Upgrading Its 767s, but Only the Front Half


Before the US Airways merger, American had said it would eventually refit some of its 767 fleet with flat beds in Business Class, but we didn’t really have much more insight into when or what would actually happen. Now we know, and it’s not good news for those in the back where overhead video screens will continue to exist. In fact, the only good news is that American doesn’t expect to keep these airplanes flying all that much longer. I was able to speak with American’s Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer (and a planner at heart), Andrew Nocella about why this decision was made.

American 767-300 New Biz

The email I got from American’s PR agency (they still use Weber Shandwick for now) crowed about how great the new upgrades on the 767-300 were going to be. Oh sure, there were plenty of pretty pictures of the new flat beds in business (above), but something didn’t smell quite right. One of these new upgrades caught my eye.

The project included “the installation of new LCD drop-down monitors onboard.” Wait a minute. Did that mean there wouldn’t be in-seat video on this airplane? A quick email back to Weber got me the answer.

That’s correct – we don’t have plans to install in-seat video on our retrofitted planes, that’s something that will be available on all of American’s new planes. The retrofitted 767-300s will continue to have overhead video, with the new LCD drop-down monitors.

You have got to be friggin’ kidding me. If you’re trying to compete with United’s 747s, then good job, American. You’ve successfully created an equally sub-standard product for those in coach. How does a decision like this get made?

When I spoke with Andrew Nocella, he got right to the point, saying that the 767-300 is “not long for our fleet, for the most part.” Out of the 50+ airplanes, only about 25 (give or take) will get the new upgrades. The rest are expected to be gone with 3 years or so. This doesn’t sound much different than the previous American’s plan. Even the aircraft that are getting upgrades, however, aren’t likely to stick around more than about 5 years. As 787s and A350s come on the property, the 767-300s will be the first to go.

Actually, the old US Airways 767-200s will be the first to go. They actually anticipate keeping them flying through the summer of 2015 for one reason – it allows them to accelerate the work being done upgrading the 767-300s. But after summer 2015, those airplanes will finally become beer cans.

If this shows anything, it shows how important the airline views flat beds in business class. After all, they are going to spend a ton of money to upgrade airplanes that will only be around for 5 more years. But they still couldn’t be bothered to put in-seat video in coach as part of the process. Suck.

But let’s talk about the international fleet in general. The standard for all new deliveries will be audio/video on demand. The 777-300s and the A330s already have it. Though plans for the 777-200 haven’t been announced, I have to assume (I hope) that they’ll get that treatment as well. The 767-200s and -300s will soldier on with overhead video, though many of those airplanes will leave the fleet quickly. Then there’s the international 757s. No decision has been made on what to do with those yet.

Andrew made it clear that while the 767-300 is a big part of the fleet today, it’s going to be a much smaller part of it going forward. It seems like this is going to be the workhorse airplane that goes where others can’t do it profitably. In other words, it can be used in secondary markets. Think about places with thinner demand that could still use a longer haul airplane. Andrew mentioned Brasilia as a possible example. I suggested they put them in Venezuela. Maybe they can get them stolen by the government and they can make insurance pay for them.

In about 5 years, they’ll all be gone and the international fleet will all have flat beds up front and in-seat video in the back. But it’ll be a long 5 years until we get to that point. And the spin that’s being put out there is so sickeningly thick. I gagged when I read about “new seat covers and cushions in the Main Cabin that mirror the design of American’s 777-300ER fleet for a more consistent widebody experience.”

Yes, the seat covers make it look more consistent, as long as you view it from the front and ignore the lack of in-seat entertainment. Very poor indeed.

Of course, if you’re flying up front, you won’t care. The new seat up there is a tremendous improvement over what I consider to be one of the worst Business Class seats flying today.

Next time you’re looking at flights, keep in mind that if you’re on an American 767, you’ll want to bring your own tablet.

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36 comments on “American is Upgrading Its 767s, but Only the Front Half

  1. Cranky, haven’t you said before that in-seat video isn’t as high a priority these days with the proliferation of iPads and tablets, etc.? I seem to recall arguments being made that in-seat power and wi-fi are more important these days? Granted (I believe) the old AA 767’s don’t have that either, but I’m confused as to your “crankiness” over no in-seat video in coach on those old birds.

    That said, you get no argument from me on this one. As someone who spends 99% of his time in coach, when I do take those long flights in-seat video is a nice perk.

    And also, the drawback to tablets is I have to plan ahead and download 8+ hours of movies to my iPad, which takes quite some time. In the last minute scramble before a trip, that’s not always happening.

    1. It’s a big deal for many of us that don’t have tablets or netbooks. Some of us fly with just our bulky, oversized company laptop that has (I’m not joking) 35min of battery life. If I’m flying long haul international you’d better have seatback entertainment or I’m flying your competitor. Hence I fly UA’s 777 fleet or a foreign carrier.

    2. @A,
      As you began to point out, it’s not a big deal for domestic routes because many people bring their own devices and flights are short. But for international service, flights 5+ hours, IFE is industry-standard. And if AA is going to spend the money and out-of-service time to upgrade the planes, the marginal PTV cost shouldn’t be too bad. This makes their “new product” inferior to DL, UA, and almost all international carrier’s existing products.

      I wonder if this is a sign of Team Doug Parker’s mentality–invest only where tangible, solid returns are found. Consistency is less important than profitability at a marginal decision level.

    3. A – I have definitely gone back and forth on this. Domestically, it’s a nice frill but I don’t think it’s necessary at all. (Power, however, should be.) Internationally, it’s different. I’ve blasted United for keeping overhead screens on the 747. If power was installed, I’d be less annoyed, but in general, I do think screens belong on intercontinental flights.

      1. Am I correct in understanding that AA has even got the wiring to install seat-back IFE in the 763s but chose not to complete the work to install it? As an AA Platinum who mostly flies coach internationally, this is a big problem with AA-US. The 752s in both fleets are miserable and the 767 (-200s and -300s) are equally terrible.

        Furthermore, given that AA flies its 777s to a very limited set of destinations (for TATL it’s usually only LHR although you can get lucky at MAD) and US’s 332s and 333s are similarly destination specific, it means the only way to stick with OneWorld is to try to fly BA or IB metal. I guess AA doesn’t care due to the JV.

  2. It’s lame on a 5+ hour flight not having seat back video. However, do people actually take this into consideration when choosing a carrier or is it for all non-dorks based solely on price and flight schedule ?

    I think the point you’re missing is that the last 5 years financially have been lousy for AA – these were 5 lost years during which seat back TV should have been installed but was not. It’s only now that you’re seeing the consequences of decisions from 2008 or 2009

    1. I can’t say how the quality of American’s 763s affects purchasing decisions, but it certainly affects word-of-mouth. I traveled last year with another family from New York to Zurich on an ancient American 763, connecting to a much newer Swiss A330, and the difference was night-and-day. The Swiss A330 had AVOD and a fresh, well-kept cabin. The American 763 had old seats and (of course) no AVOD*. Whenever friends asked the other family how their flights were, they raved about the Swiss flight and said that American felt like a third-world carrier by comparison. While I don’t think that comparison was wholly fair, the difference was stark, and my traveling companions made sure that everyone who asked knew about it, to American’s detriment.

      (* The worst part of the American flight not having AVOD was that the coach seats were installed with remote controls in the armrests and IFE control boxes in the foot well, but there were no TVs. Apparently, AA outfitted some 763s with the remotes and boxes intending to install TVs later, ran out of cash before they got there. It seemed like the whole plane spent the first 20 minutes after boarding trying to figure out where the TVs were located in the seat in front of them.)

    2. David – Well, the airlines have been trying extremely hard to get people to buy a differentiated product. We’re going to see more highlighting of onboard product here, and it will become more and more important, even in coach.

  3. Honestly, while I’m as disgusted as you are, this is a sound business decision. The planes are on their way out and a major investment like PTVs isn’t justifiable. The advice to bring a tablet is good advice, but wait – they aren’t putting in AC outlets, either. So bring an extra battery pack, too.

    The real travesty was – and always will be – the decision not to install seatback monitors when the 763s were upgraded in 2007-2008. Those were also the “upgrades” that saw new overhead bins and sidewall panels offered only as far as mid-cabin, so you literally travel backward in time from 2008 to 1985 as you pass the 3L/R doors. One of the cheapest, most penny-wise/pound-foolish decisions the airline has ever made.

    I’m an EXP with American, but flying their geriatric 763s in Y (with equally geriatric crews providing indifferent service) certainly doesn’t align with all their glossy promotional materials. The new 777-300s are lovely, sure, but they serve a very small handful of routes. As a Chicago-based flier, I’m almost getting resentful having that aircraft flung constantly in my face in all their publicity when it’s unlikely our poor redheaded stepchild of a hub will ever see one. We’ll continue to grind along with our tired, half-updated 763s flying to an ever-dwindling number of European destinations. Hopefully we’ll see a bit more love when the 787s and A350s come online, although if American could figure out a way to fly the ERJ-145 overseas from Chicago, they probably would.

    1. I’m with James. I think this is a sound business decision as well.

      While I never buy international J tickets with cash, I do a fair amount of frequent flyer travel in them. For a given alliance and destination, I do enough looking around to see what my best options are.

      It leaves a sour taste in my mouth if a carrier is going to promote the hell out of a product and then I find out I won’t get it. It’s particularly bad when it’s available only on one fleet type and you know it, but it can be even worse if it’s *not* available only on one fleet type, and you don’t know until you board. (And you don’t know because nobody’s talking about it.) And with inconsistent implementation, you still have last minute swaps and what not that can still screw you.

      If I’m ever going to drop $8k on a J ticket, I’m doing it on somebody who has a consistent configuration, and I don’t have to worry about what I’m getting. So fleet standardization is key for attracting that premium dollar, and I think AA is right to do what they’re doing. Even if it means coach suffers.

    2. James as a geriatric crew member of AA out of Chicago, you have given an accurate account. They consistently spew the rhetoric that we can’t compete against UA In Chicago….Doug Parker has said he wants to change that, however that remains to be seen. I’m sorry you only receive indifferent service. That is personally not my work ethic. If they could slap an Eagle on every market, they would. Let’s hope New management wants to really run a world class airline going forward!

  4. Disregarding the appalling coach section, it’s not as if those images of the new C-class seats are particularly inspiring; I’m thinking dull-as-crap-boardroom. Then again, maybe that’s exactly what they’re trying to recreate……

  5. What a gr8 article. As an AA crewmember the 767 is definatley not a fav for us to work. Its still in the 80s!

  6. UAs 763 are the same since 2008: new C and Boeing signature interior for F & C, dull 80s beige for Y. :p
    I guess its the chnage Chicago based customers like ;)

  7. The problem is American even sends the 767-300 on their bread and butter routes like Santiago Chile. Even my 5 year old son complains about American and asks why we can´t fly Delta.

  8. If I’m paying for (or using up a lot of hard earned frequent customer benefits for) a business or first class product, I’ll pick in part based on what kind of seat/goodies/in flight entertainment/meal is available. But if it’s coach, I’ll pick based on price and to a lesser extent, availablity of an extra knee room product like Main Cabin Extra. I think that’s why they’re upgrading 1st and leaving coach alone. And regardless of whether you can identify a few individuals who do not in fact possess a phone or tablet capable of entertaining, I think a study would show that of the people who want to be electronically entertained in flight, the vast majority of those folks do in fact have their own device.

  9. Those sitting in business class and 1st always get the goods. Naturally, they are the ones who usually don’t pay anything out of their own pocket for an airline ticket (lawyers, business execs, etc)

  10. As a pax of course I love IFE, but there isn’t a data point on the planet that shows IFE in Y is worth the cost. No one is paying a premium for it. Plus by the time these 767s are all refitted, never mind replaced, in seat IFE will be replaced by god knows what….wifi beamed directly to your eyelids or something lighter, less expensive, and less likely to break, but still not driving any fare premium whatsoever.

  11. It sounds a bit like United’s three class 767-300s, as reconfigured several years prior to the merger with Continental. Those aircraft got new first class and business class seats, with AVOD IFE in those cabins. And, new overhead bin doors and ceiling panels were installed in those cabins. But, once you walk past the galley and lavatories that separate Business from Economy, it’s back to the 80s. The overhead bins and ceilings are the original design, and the IFE wasn’t upgraded. At least back there on the United aircraft they’ve got multi-channel IFE with (small) seatback monitors. It’s not on demand, but there are some choices and it’s not overhead video. Still, this is the cheap, classless way to do it.

  12. I’m a bit of a n00b, but I figure they can’t put new seats in the 763s with PTVs then reuse them in the 787s and A350s? If that was possible it’d be great, but its probably more hassle than its worth.

    1. Nick – it’s a good question. You would think that might be possible in theory, but I imagine it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

  13. Circa a decade ago: self-paid J class JFK-LHR-JFK, memorable for tired, FILTHY 763s both ways, unbelievably bad food and surly crews and hence my decision to use up all AA miles–I’d learned my lesson. After many free trips, have flown them exactly twice, and not by choice, since. JamesS is right; I just saw the new promo material in the Hollywood Reporter—why is AA’s promotional material always so much better than the actual product? Definitely not ready to risk spending my own money on AA when there are more reliable choices.

  14. You can get a no-name brand 7″ Android tablet for under $80 these days, so if you can afford to fly internationally you can afford to own a media-playing device.

    To me, this sounds like the perfect place for one of those wireless streaming solutions. Offer free content to people who bring their own devices and rent tablets for a small fee to those who don’t.

  15. Coach will always be coach with only the minimum requirements needed, so no one should expect anything more. If what’s onboard is really important then traveling on a non-U.S. carrier may be a better choice, and U.S. carriers do need to thing of that to a point.

  16. American Airlines in unfortunately turning into a clone of US AIR or US WORSE as a lot of professional frequent Flyers call them. UAL’s Business Class is no prize but it at least has in seat video. Also many of UAL’s 767-300’s have in seat video in Economy.

  17. Why the big hoopla? A few minutes after the movie starts, I am out like a light. After all, there is not much made in the last 30 years to hold a person’s interest for very long (most of it is rehash from prior to 1980). I will gladly trade those video screens for a decent meal.

  18. Why is in-seat video in coach so important? Frankly for most of the routes that these will be flying US East Coast to Secondary Europe will be red-eye in one way. If i’m planning on getting some sleep, does it really matter whether i have in seat on demand video? i want my eyeshades and some sleep.

    If i had to prioritize, i’d much rather have in seat video on trans pacific flights which are much longer than trans Atlantic flights where most will be sleeping.

    1. Wow what a stupid comment. Eastbound many are overnight westbound none are. Or have you not done these routes…

  19. I understand AA’s logic and don’t know what it would cost to install AVOD on the 767s. That said, the issue isn’t so much in-seat video per se as passenger perception. If you board an international flight these day without AVOD, especially given that most of your competitor have it, the perception is that you’ve fallen behind/offered an inferior product. AA is spending tens of millions promoting their international and transcon service and the minute someone boards an AA 767 the marketing will be totally undone. Even in J, the lack of AVOD is annoying–try having a nice dinner while wrestling with those tablets. I understand that the 767s are being phased out, but they’re still running 757s and 767s to major leisure/business markets such as CDG and ZRH. You better believe that AAs new hard product is in no way competitive with AF, DL, or Swiss and people do notice. A not great interim solution might have been to offer streaming video for free over wifi, but something tells me they’re not that ambitious. I say all of this, but I have to disagree with Cranky about the current AA 767 business class seat. It may not be perfect for sleeping, but it’s extremely comfortable for everything else (although I wish the table would align).

  20. Brett, you’d remarked: “the only good news is that American doesn’t expect to keep these airplanes [767’s] flying all that much longer.”

    I find IFE irrelevant to my trips. 767’s by design have the most comfortable economy class available: Two aisles and only one middle seat per row make for the least claustrophobic economy travel experience currently available.

    I dislike the overall substitution of single-aisle and cramped 737’s for 767s in transcontinental domestic travel, and particularly despise American’s shoulder-contorting 10-across 777’s for international trips. I will miss the 767’s when they’re phased out.

  21. The reason for lie flats up front is that they are a requirement for being in the code share with other airlines, therefore the forced update with no reason to change the back.
    If service and meals are important I’d fly a non US carrier. It is so bad lately that I even pass on the first class meals.

  22. Whether you have an iPad/Galaxy tab on board with you is irrelevant; it is so archaic to not have personal IFE systems at each seat in AA for long haul flights. In fact, it’s embarrasing for America that the airline, although private, is seen as a de facto “national carrier”. I flew on a Singapore Airlines 747-4 back in 2000 and they had PTVs even back then. It’s 2015 now! The inferiority of US based airlines compared to the rest of the world is quite amazing. The only US-based airline that achieves a Skytrax 4 star rating is JetBlue with AA, DL and UA managing a lower 3 star rating along with the likes of Aeroflot of Russia, Middle East Airlines and Aeromexico. I would rather fly via Dubai on Emirates (2013 World Airline of the Year) at the same cost than direct on a US carrier where I would receive poor service from rude staff coupled with no IFE, terrible food and an old plane. It seems that management, like at a lot of US service providers, put bottom line profits way ahead of customer satisfaction. I hope people will realize how bad these carriers are and choose the way better foreign carriers instead.

  23. In flight entertainment on a long haul flight is not a ‘perk’ it’s something that has existed on most humane aircraft for 15-20 years. Absolutely absurdly ridiculous

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