American Airlines' CEO Says the Least Important Customers Get the Worst Planes

Absurdly Driven looks at the world of business with a skeptical eye and a firmly rooted tongue in cheek. 

Who are your most important customers?

Are they those who spend a lot of money with you today?

Or might they be those who, in the future, could be spending the most money and today are comparing your brand with that of others?

This topic clings to my eyebrows on reading the thoughts of American Airlines CEO Doug Parker.

Revealed by the apparently indefatigable Gary Leff of View From The Wing, Parker’s words were uttered to one of his Flight Attendants last Thursday during the airline’s regular “Crew News” Question and Answer session.

The Flight Attendant is based in Lima, Peru.

She struggles with the fact that the airline uses quite old Boeing 767 planes on routes to and from Peru’s capital.

She finds it hard to make passengers happy because the planes have mechanical issues more than usual and they’re not necessarily as well equipped as more modern planes.

She wants new planes.

Parker replied that the airline deploys the older planes “where they’re the least painful to our most important customers.” 

He then added: “Don’t go tell your customers that.” 

Ah. Hmm.

Perhaps one should admire Parker’s candor.

He could have attempted to create some complex logistical argument for why Lima seems underserved and undeserving.

He could have made fanciful promises.

Instead, he seemed to explain that the airline sends its worst planes where it makes least money.

Many might find this entirely logical.

Amateur strategists might howl, however, that when it comes to an emerging market like Lima, it could be wiser to lay on at least the occasional nicer plane in order to impress business travelers who might be new to the airline.

Indeed, in the same Q&A, the airline’s vice president of Planning, Vasu Raja, admitted that the Lima route was subject to a lot of competition.

So laying on slightly more lovely planes might gain some brand loyalty. It might spread word that the airline was quite something. It might create greater demand.

The problem is that the concept of brand doesn’t appear to impress itself upon American’s CEO.

For example, he managed, in another Q&A, to tell a frustrated Flight Attendant that taking seatback screens away from passengers was an example of Going For Great.

One can’t help getting the impression that he — and therefore the airline — is so fascinated by making money in every nickel-and-diming way possible that the more intangible values, such as people actually having a good opinion of your airline, matter zero whits. 

Yet I’m not even sure his logic is all that strong.

When you look at many of American’s newest planes — the Boeing 737 MAX, for example — they’re stuffed full of seats. 

One of the airline’s own pilots described the toilets on these brand-new planes as “the most miserable experience in the world.”

Parker himself admitted that he’d never flown on them and then couldn’t understand why this was a big deal.

It may well be that American wouldn’t use these particular planes on a longer route such as Lima, but it does suggest that the airline’s idea of comfort is being downgraded. (And it’s not the only airline thinking this way.)

American could decide to refurbish its 767s to make them more alluring. It doesn’t appear inclined to.

Personally, I’d rather fly almost any wide-bodied plane than almost any narrow-bodied act of callous claustrophobia.

Yet airlines are constantly buying narrow-bodied planes that can fly greater distances.

At heart, though, how should a business decide which customers are important and which aren’t?

I asked American to hone its definition for me and will update, should I receive a reply. 

The issue of who’s important and who isn’t will, however, become an ever-increasing concern for passengers.

After all, airlines are currently looking at technology that sets your fare according not to where you’re flying — or even which class you’re flying in — but according to who you are.

Of course, we’d all like to permanently important. 

Increasingly, it’ll be an algorithm that decides whether we are.