American CEO Robert Isom Shares His Favorite Aircraft

Checkers fast food burgers used to run commercials with the tag line, “you gotta eat!” You have to ingest food to sustain life, and they offer something that constitutes food. Profit!

That’s sometimes seemed to me to be the attitude at American Airlines about their inflight product. They need to have one. Chief Revenue Officer Vasu Raja explains that their schedule is the product.

So it didn’t at all surprise me when airline CEO Robert Isom answered the question what is your favorite plane with “My favorite plane now is planes that deliver on time” at the Skift Global forum.

I responded on twitter that this was “the most Robert Isom answer, ever.”

You’d think that he might answer from the perspective of passion about aviation, perhaps a feat of engineering. Or he might answer based on what his own airline operates (they love their Airbus and Boeing narrowbodies). Or he might love what an airplane lets them do for customers. A plane needs to be a fit for the airline’s route network and customers, so a plane that serves unique destinations effectively or allows for niche products their customers love might be a favorite. Instead Isom suggests – that with manufacturer delays – a good airplane is a done airplane.

For years the inflight product was something of an afterthought. They didn’t even build a mockup of the cabin for their new standard (‘Oasis’) domestic interior. Instead, in COO David Seymour’s words, they just ‘taped it out’.

They bought seats, the fundamental attribute of which was that they were seats, and they fit the layout of passenger accommodations that had been sketched (as the airline moved from 160 seats on their Boeing 737s to 172 seats). They didn’t really test out the way the galleys would work, or restrooms, or realize that the seats would be uncomfortable and first class wouldn’t have underseat storage. They wound up retrofitting first class (‘Project Kodiak’).

This was penny wise and pound foolish, but one of the first charges Isom gave upon becoming CEO was that employees shouldn’t spend a dollar more than they need to. He’s view the airline being in competition with Spirit and Frontier.

Yet American also has some outstanding premium products, like Flagship First Dining and they are putting new business class suites with doors into Boeing 787-9 and 777-300ER aircraft. They’ll even be introducing new bedding and amenity kits to go along with the new seats.

So there does seem to be a renewed interest in product at the airline, even as they’ve treated planes as interchangeable and seats as seats since US Airways management took over. My hope is that Isom’s favorite plane becomes whichever has the best new seats, and that the right aircraft for the airline becomes the one that best meets the needs of their customers.

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