The Brancatelli File



August 30, 2001 -- When I suggested last month that American Airlines' decision to rip seats out of its coach cabins and increase the legroom at each remaining chair was gigantic progress measured in inches, I didn't expect anyone to suggest a contrary interpretation. After all, who among us would argue that more room in coach is a bad idea?

So it's no surprise that not a single one of the more than 2,500 E-mails I received about the column found a Zen-like path to the conclusion that less is more in coach. And many of you said you've switched some or all of your business to American as a result of the added legroom.

Yet almost half of you were also quick to answer my question about why you weren't flying American despite the extra three to five inches of seat pitch. To be perfectly honest, I asked the question rhetorically, in a moment of prosaic passion. But your answers were so compelling and so provocative that I couldn't resist bundling them into a nice little Cyberpackage and presenting them here.

So here we go, fellow flyers. This is you talking about your buying decisions and why you haven't switched to American.

By far the most popular reason you gave for not flying American's more spacious coach cabins was a simple lack of information. More than a third of you said you didn't even know American had made the move to more roomy coach seats.

This, I think, raises an interesting question. Why isn't American marketing and advertising this thing better? The airline has spent a few million on advertising and has attached the prosaic "More Room Throughout Coach" logo on most of its collateral material, but the campaign has been sporadic, largely forgettable, and, if you are any indication, not reaching enough frequent flyers.

American has also done a miserable promotional job. One example: last summer's seat-giveaway gimmick. Entrants who came up with the best and most inventive ideas for using the seats that American ripped out of coach won their own row of chairs. But American never released the names of the winners, thus depriving themselves of a blizzard of free publicity. Local television stations, cable-news outlets and newspapers would have scurried to interview local winners and show them using their spiffy row of airline seats. Media types are suckers for that kind of goofy stuff, but American wasn't smart enough to cash in on that potential windfall.

The second most frequently offered reason why you're not flying American's roomier coach confines is cost. A substantial number of you are convinced that American's prices are now consistently higher than the other full-line carriers.

That assertion is difficult to prove, especially since the major carriers tend to mindlessly ape each other on airfares. However, American did eliminate a batch of its lowest fare buckets not long after introducing the "more room" initiative in February, 2000. And based on several rounds of random fare hunting I've done recently, American can be $20 to $200 more expensive on some domestic roundtrips.

Which leaves both you and American in a quandary. How much more do the pricing gurus at American think they can charge for the privilege of giving you a few extra inches of seat room? And how much more are you willing to pay to fly comfortably? My guess is that you'll pay a hell of a lot less than American thinks it can get away with charging.

After knowledge and price, the biggest reason you cited for not flying American is, well, bigness. Many of you feel the issue isn't legroom, but seat width. Seat width as in American's new coach seats aren't wide enough for your seat. As a widebody myself, I take your point. With the exception of Midwest Express, which offers wider coach seats in a 2x2 configuration, every carrier's coach seat width is miserable. Still, consider this: American's new coach seats may be as annoyingly narrow as all the other carriers, but at least they throw in that extra legroom.

The next most frequently mentioned reason for not flying American's more spacious coach seats was your elite status on another carrier. Why fly coach, you reasoned, even American's better class of coach, when you're already elite on another airline and often get upgraded to first class.

This, I believe, is a crucial issue. What is your responsibility to support a better product even if it means some temporary inconvenience? And what is American's logical business imperative to reach out to other airlines' elite flyers and sell them on their better mousetrap?

I can only speak for myself. I have flown American in coach when I could have booked another carrier where I have elite status. I do feel a debt of gratitude to an airline that has improved our lives on the road. But as far as I can tell, and within the context of the "more room" initiative, American has been slow to woo elites from other carriers. American apparently believes we owe it to them to fly American. It's that kind of insufferable arrogance that often comes back to bite American on its corporate bum.

Lastly, many of you said you have a mad on for American and simply won't fly them. I can understand that. We all have a carrier that has treated us so shabbily that we can't abide flying that airline again. If American is the airline you love to hate, so be it. I support and admire frequent flyers who talk with their feet and their wallet. Airlines must be made to pay for their venality.

But can I make one suggestion? Avoiding an airline for more than two years is probably counterproductive. For good and for bad, no carrier is the same airline that it was two years ago. You need to sample an airline every couple of years to see if your negative (or positive) conclusions remain valid. So, to those of you who told me you're boycotting American because of a bad flight last January or last year, I say "Bravo!" But I don't see how avoiding American--or any other airline--because you got bad service in 1996 or 1998 makes sense in 2001.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.