Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek.
I want to like American Airlines slightly more than I do.
It has a large network. It used to fly large plane from the west coast to New York.
I used to fly them all the time.
Currently, I get the feeling that American is a slightly chilly place, where the employees aren’t happy and the management spins itself in circles that might end with it slipping down a drain.
What, then, do American’s executives really think?
Thankfully, at the recent Skift Global Conference, the airline’s CFO Derek Kerr offered an insight into how American views its business and its passengers.
I tried hard to follow his logic.
American has become something of a symbol for trying to shove as many seats as possible onto planes, with passenger comfort — even in First Class — being tossed to the wind. (At least on domestic flights.)
American has, though, been calling its most important customers to apologize for the airline’s less than smooth running this year.
Isn’t there something else that might be affecting the airline’s operations?
If you’re not delivering excellent customer service and your planes have become less comfortable, perhaps the other, less controllable elements are mere additions to a more general disgruntlement.
Kerr was asked specifically about the issue of cramming passengers in. This so-called — by someone with a very dark sense of humor — Project Oasis meant that most of American’s planes would now have up to 22 more seats than they used to.
First, American had already added 10 seats to its Boeing 737-800 planes. Then it added 12 more. Isn’t this simply annoying your passengers?
Kerr’s response was picturesque:
I look at it as a different thing. It is a fleet harmonization is what we’re doing.
I can feel the emissions of breath from American’s customers.
There they were thinking this was being done to make them more uncomfortable. Instead, it was an attempt to create harmony.
Kerr explained that this was all because of the merging of two airlines — American and US Airways.
He said there were common aircraft types between the two airlines. Yet the interiors and even the seat numbering was different.
Ergo, said Kerr, all the planes had to be exactly the same so that operations can run better.
This is also for your benefit dear customer, he said:
From a customer perspective, it’s better so that if I get on that plane and I swap to another plane I get my seat.
It doesn’t seem too great a benefit if you’re basing it on the potential need to change planes.
Does American expect that to happen often?
Ah, but the airline has also put larger bins and WiFi on the aircraft. (We’ll come back to the WiFi in a minute.)
Kerr was asked about the fact that the airline could, despite all this harmonization, also now sell 22 more seats per flight.
His riposte? That the planes with 160 seats had 10 seats put down as inoperative. Why?
Listen to this:
Because if I add those 10 extra seats, I have to add a Flight Attendant, because every 50 seats you have to add a Flight Attendant.
Gosh, no. The mere idea that there’d be more staff on a plane to serve customers must be anathema to American’s ethos.
But now there are 172 seats in its 737-800’s. What about that?
Going from 160 to 172 was the MAX’s are coming with 172. So there’s a new configuration with the MAX aircraft.
Which meant, according to Kerr, that the old planes would now have to have the same configuration, the same reduced legroom and the same bathrooms described by an American Airlines pilot as “the most miserable experience in the world.”
Please let’s pause to examine this fascinating logic.
All the planes had to be made less comfortable because the newest plane was less comfortable.
But why was the newest plane less comfortable? Because American’s management decided to shove 172 seats in it.
Can you feel the customer-focused harmony in that?
Kerr’s session contrasted rather with that of Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian at the same conference.
He explained that not only is the airline working hard to provide free WiFi for all, but that it’s continuing to invest in seatback screens.
This gives customers options. It also ensures that when a family of five is on a flight, they don’t need to bring five devices with them.
You’ll be stunned into a gnarly torpor when I tell you American sees things a little differently.
It’s removing seatback screens. Kerr again:
We looked five years down the road and said would we invest in screens on the back of the TV [sic] or would we invest in the best WiFi of anybody?
Kerr is convinced everyone comes on board with at least one device and that customers simply want to have “an in-home experience.”
There’s a slight drawback to this. The WiFi isn’t good enough. Oh, and you also currently have to pay for it.
Which means the customer experience is rather degraded. (Kerr also happened to mention that the airline doesn’t make money on free WiFi, which added a blissful myopia.)
On Delta, on the other hand, the airline is working hard on free WiFi. In the meantime, it doesn’t want you to sit there entirely without entertainment because you have no seatback screen.
Delta has a reputation — at least currently — for thinking through human issues a little better than American. (Oddly, it’s doing better financially too.)
Who would be surprised if an element of American’s decision to rip out screens involved making planes lighter, thereby saving on fuel? Oh, and there’s the saving on screen maintenance too.
Airlines have to make big decisions a long way out.
Behind those decisions, however, is often a very particular view of how the airline sees its brand and its customers.
Currently, Delta sees itself not so much as an airline, but as a brand that seeks to engender higher, more pleasant feelings in its customers. Said Bastian:
Eventually we want to be seen as a brand that consumers love because it has such impact on their life, like other great brands that they love and pay a premium for.
Currently, American Airlines has no brand purpose.