Last week I had the opportunity to attend an American Airlines press announcement at DFW Airport. Those of us who were invited knew that the event would involve modernization of the fleet, the invitation said “American Airlines is taking steps to improve travel for customers and would like to invite you to see all its premium enhancements firsthand.” I accepted their invitation. Note: At this point the lawyers say I have to tell you some things about my relationship with American Airlines, so please be sure to read the disclaimer at the end of the article.

My invitation to the DFW presentation said “At the event, the airline also plans to announce the latest investment in the company’s aircraft modernization plans while onboard an American wide-body jet.

EXECUTIVES:

  • Virasb Vahidi, American’s Chief Commercial Officer
  • Maya Leibman, American’s Chief Information Officer
  • Rob Friedman, American’s Vice President – Marketing”

I arrived at DFW and after a short wait went to gate D23 to board the 777 where the event would take place. The gate agent asked for my boarding pass. Boarding pass? I showed him my boarding passes to and from Austin, neither of which helped for this event; he said he’d be right back. He went onto the plane and returned shortly with my new boarding pass for special flight 2499 from DFW to DFW, seat 9J. And with that I was allowed to board. Pretty clever, the boarding passes limited access only to those who were invited, and allowed the airline to later see who had attended and who had not.

The flight attendant who greeted me as I entered the aircraft immediately told me to move to the forward area to see all of the new innovations that AA will have. Photos of these improvements are below; before we get to those, let’s talk about what American intends to do

“Luxury” and “American Airlines” are not words that one would normally use in the same sentence. While other carriers have been upgrading their international service, AA left theirs as it had been for the past several years. The marketplace told them that was a mistake. That is all about to change.

Starting in 2014 American will spend “hundreds of millions of dollars a year” to upgrade its fleet and, as Virasb Vahidi said, “build an experience worthy of being this nation’s flag carrier.”

The changes are numerous:

  • All 777-200ERs will be retrofitted with fully lie-flat Business Class seats with aisle access for every seat, international Wi-Fi, in-seat entertainment throughout all cabins, and Main Cabin Extra seating offering more legroom. Business Class passengers will have more than twice the room they currently have on the 777-200.
  • Half of the 767-300 fleet will feature fully lie-flat Business Class seats with aisle access for every seat, and Main Cabin Extra seating. The other half of the fleet will be retired as the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners are put into service.
  • The airline will receive the first of ten 777-300ERs later this year, the first American-flag carrier to fly that model. In 2013 they will receive the first of 130 Airbus A-319s and A 320s as part of its program to have the youngest fleet of any American carrier.
  • 737-800s will be put into service with the new Boeing Sky Interior.
  • Food and wine in Business Class will be upgraded.
  • Entertainment options will increase. Business Class passengers currently have access to a Samsung Galaxy Tab tablet with TV shows, movies and music. The new aircraft will replace that with up to 120 movies, 180 TV programs, 350 audio selections and 30 games available on a 15.4-inch HD-capable touchscreen monitor positioned in each Business Class suite. Main Cabin (coach) seats will have access to the same entertainment, but on a smaller screen.
  • The airline will make greater use of technology to include: mobile applications for the customers (iPhone, iPad, Android, etc.); pilots will carry iPads which will contain all of their manuals, rather than carrying the manuals themselves; mechanics will have tablets with maintenance information that they can easily access instead of needing to go inside to look through a manual.

“American will be among the first in the industry to offer the combination of fully lie-flat seats with all-aisle access, international Wi-Fi, and top-of-the-line in-seat entertainment,” Vahidi said.

Why are they doing this? Money is the biggest reason: they have found that 25% of their customers produce 70% of their revenue — those are the people sitting in the front of the plane, paying anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 for a round trip ticket to London, while the coach passenger can get the same flights for $1,400. While the airline has higher costs for the premium passenger in front, the higher cost of the ticket more than makes up for it, leaving them with increased profits. .

One of the speakers said that this move would send a message to American’s customers, employees, and competition that American intended to once again become a “world class airline.” I think that is an important message. With the airline going through reorganization under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, many have wondered what its future course will be. With this announcement, AA let the world know it is not going away, but is coming back better than it is now with a better product, newer aircraft, and a stronger network. I think that is a message they had to send.

I also thought management was sending a simple two word message to US Air, which has made no secret of its desire to merge  with AA: “Go away.” But there are so many moving parts to the reorganization process that my thought was out-of-date only two days later when American and the Unsecured Creditors Committee (UCC) agreed to explore all options, including a merger with US Air.  (See Fort Worth Star-Telegram article for more information.) However, the newspaper adds “American is adamant that the agreement with the unsecured creditors committee, announced Friday, does not mean that American will necessarily pursue a merger.” In the meantime,American’s three largest unions have endorsed a merger; Boeing, its largest supplier, has endorsed the corporation’s go-it-alone plan. There are so many moving parts in a Chapter 11 reorganization that it’s difficult to say where this will go.

During the session, a reporter asked why American waited until now to upgrade their fleet as opposed to doing it before, and the answer was “We did not have the financial resources to do it before, but we do now.” I thought that was interesting: before they filed for bankruptcy protection they did not have the necessary funds, now that they are in bankruptcy they do.

When the session ended, I was not very impressed, but the more I though about it, the more excited I was about this very bold move by American Airlines. They basically said that they realized their product was sub-par, and they were not only going to improve it, they were going to become an industry leader. That is a daring plan that shows faith in the corporation and a dynamic strategy for the future, They have set the bar very high —I  hope they succeed.

As one who sits in the back of the plane and may never have the chance to fly international business or first class, why should I care about this? Simple: I want American Airlines to survive. I want to be able to fly AA in 5, 10, 15 years and beyond. I want to reach 2 million miles lifetime status with them — I don’t want to start all over with a different airline. I think the American aviation industry is better with a strong American Airlines that is in fact a world class airline.

So I hope this plan works. If it does, everyone will be able to use the words “luxury” and “American Airlines” in the same sentence.

And now for the photos of some of the things I saw while on the plane that day.

I saw the new international business class lie-down-flat seat.

The new international Business Class lie-flat seat. Every seat will have direct across to the aisle - no one will need to crawl over a sleeping passenger to go to the restroom. (photo compliments of American Airlines)

Another view of the premium lie-flat seating featuring the pillow, duvet, slippers, turn-down service, and the red amenity kit.

Wine selection will change. AA has realized that while things may taste one way to us while we are on the ground, they taste different to us when we are in a cabin at 35,000 feet with reduced air pressure. AA's premium class passengers will see a new, more flavorful wine selection, to compensate for this. Ken Chase, American's wine expert, has created a new wine selection featuring Keenan Chardonnay, Nobilo Icon Sauvignon Blanc, Salentein Reserva Malbec, Beringer Alluvium, 2004 Champagne Moutard, and Gloria Ferrer Sonoma Carneros Brut.

Reporters from the Dallas/Fort Worth TV/radio stations and newspapers were present for the event.

American already has an iPhone and Android app. They are now beta-testing an app for the iPad which will not simply be a larger version of the iPhone app, it will be a completely new product. I saw the beta version of it and have to say that it is a beautiful app with features people will want to use. AA has found that fine line where designers and programmers come together to produce a productive application with stunning graphics. You can expect it later this year.

The Main Cabin (a.k.a. Coach) on the 777-300 will feature video screens in each seat with hundreds of hours of programming. (photo compliments American Airlines)

The new 737-800s will feature Boeing's beautiful Sky Inerior with LED lighting and much larger overhead bins. I'm lucky, I've flown on one of these aircraft. They really are nice and represent a substantial improvement over the standard 737. I particularly like the larger overhead bins that not only hold more bags, they hold larger ones too. They make make a huge difference, eliminating the need for passengers to fight to get their bags to fit.

“Hey Happyflier, you sound like a shill for American Airlines, did they buy you off?”

No. In the past I have written two different kinds of articles about American Airlines. One type has nothing but nice things to say about the airline, its products and its people. In the other articles I have expressed my extreme displeasure with something AA has done or not done. If I like what they have done, I say so. If I don’t like what they have done, I say so.

In this case, I really like American Airline’s new initiative. They see where they have fallen short in the past. They understand what they need to do to fix it, and they have taken a bold, properly funded action, to not only correct the situation, but to become an industry leader. I hope they succeed, and hope one day to be able to sample its new premium service.

Disclaimer: (1) American Airlines provided me with a plane ticket to Dallas, I flew to this event at no cost to myself. (2) Free items I received included a pair of AA pajamas, an amenity kit (some of the items in contained include sleep mask, ear plugs, hand lotion, toothbrush with toothpaste). I also received a lunch bag with two sandwiches, a bag of nuts, and a cookie (3) I own stock in AMR Corporation, American Airlines’ parent corporation; total value of my holdings as of this date is less than $90..