American’s Latest Improvements Show An Attempt to Balance Customer Experience with Spending Tons of Money

I wrote earlier this week about how Delta was working on re-branding to reflect all the product improvements it had made over the last few years. Well, American and US Airways are about 5 years behind the Delta/Northwest merger, so they still have a lot of work to do. This week, (some of which we had already known about). It’s good to see these improvements, but it’s clear that there’s a delicate balancing act going on between customer improvements and spending, especially on airplanes that are going to be retired in the next few years.

American 757 and 767 Plans

American does come from a difficult place. Legacy American hadn’t invested in its onboard product in years. (It had just started before the merger, but that hadn’t hit most of the fleet.) Meanwhile, legacy US Airways was an airline that didn’t think it needed an upgraded onboard product. Now, as the combined American, both sides needed a lot of money put in to get the product up to speed.

On the new aircraft side, that was easy. American had already ordered a silly number of new airplanes and those are coming in all the time. About 100 new airplanes came in this year, 112 will come next year, and then 84 more will arrive in 2016. That’s a lot. But the bigger issue is the older aircraft in the fleet and what to do with them.

Some of these things will be addressed through retirements. The MD-80s, for example, are quickly going away. There are still about 150 in the fleet, but as more 737s come in, more MD-80s will be retired. With American keeping the MD-80s on mostly mid-haul flights, the inflight wifi is enough to make it a decent enough onboard experience, though clearly they could benefit from investment. They just aren’t going to get it.

On the other hand, we have a few legacy fleets that are getting long in the tooth but are staying around for awhile. Those are the ones that are being addressed in this round of changes.

The 767
The US Airways 767-200s will be retired for good in the next couple of months (sooner than originally thought), but that still leaves 58 of American’s 767-300ERs in the fleet. These will eventually be replaced by a combination of 787s and narrowbody airplanes, but that will take time. And these airplanes currently have the worst long haul experience in the fleet, tied with the 757. In coach, it’s old school with only overhead video screens and no wifi. In business, it’s that torturous angled bed which I experienced on a Dublin trip.

American had already announced changes in the front cabin with flat beds being installed but only on part of the fleet. That still holds. There are already 11 flying with another 14 scheduled to be converted this year. But that’s it. The remaining 33 will keep flying in their ancient state until they’re retired. But this still doesn’t help those in the back of the bus. Is there any relief? Yes. The 25 767s that are being converted will now have satellite wifi onboard. That’s huge. No powerports though. They apparently can’t justify that.

This means that flying on the older aircraft will still suck. Originally, those were supposed to be retired within about 3 years. We’ll see if that changes. I’m told they’ll try to isolate the older products on routes that might not care as much. Dallas to Hawai’i is probably the biggest one you’d expect. But with 33 flying today, some are going to do long haul routes.

The 757
Today, there are about 100 757s still flying between the legacy American and US Airways fleets, and they are one giant hodge-podge of onboard experiences. American has some domestic ones with wifi and international ones with angled flat beds up front. US Airways has a mix of airplanes it picked up in various places. The 757 has been such a workhorse for every airline serving all kinds of different markets that the number of configurations out there is mind-boggling.

But now, American will work to retire the 757s in favor of A321s as much as possible with the realization that there are some missions that no other airplane can really accomplish with the right number of seats. (Well, that is until ….) With that in mind, we’re going to see a 757 fleet stick around for a long time. In particular they’ll be used for East Coast – Europe, US – Latin, and West Coast – Hawai’i flying.

The East Coast – Europe and West Coast – Hawai’i US – Latin airplanes will be retrofitted. They’ll get flat beds in business (we don’t know what they’ll look like yet) along with powerports throughout the airplane. Oh, and satellite wifi will be installed as well. Pretty nice, actually. But what about the rest of the 757s?

Well, I’m guessing that West Coast – Hawai’i flying won’t see many upgrades. And for the meantime, domestic 757s will probably also not get any love. It’s going to take a while to get that many 757s out of the fleet.

The A319/A320
Legacy US Airways has a lot of A319s and A320s and those aren’t going anywhere. It has 93 of the former and 64 of the latter, in fact. And while legacy American has no A320s, it did recently start taking delivery of tricked-out A319s with all the bells and whistles.

The A319s in the US Airways fleet will be getting an upgrade but it won’t match the legacy American fleet (because it’s nearly impossible to justify that level of bling). The configurations will also be a bit different, at least until they decide to change the legacy American fleet. The legacy American A319s have 34 Main Cabin Extra seats. US Airways A319s will have only 24. [This is incorrect, configurations should be the same.] There will, however, be powerports through the airplane, so that’s great. They already have wifi, so you know that’ll be the extent of inflight entertainment on these airplanes.

But here’s the thing. The A320s aren’t getting these upgrades. So far, they aren’t getting any upgrades at all.

As you can see, we’re a long way from an even remotely consistent product experience. It sounds like American wants to offer wifi, streaming content, and power outlets on all of its airplanes in the distant future. That’s not a bad plan, but it’s going to take a long time to get there.

I suppose that’s the nature of the beast in a merger like this, but with airlines like Delta finally getting everything to be consistent, it makes it harder for American to put out these varying experiences. I know it might not be the most financially prudent decision, but I would think that heavier investment, even in airplanes that will only be around for a few more years, would still be worthwhile.

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