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American Airlines’ New Boarding Policy Is Indicative Of a Larger Culture Problem

Like a canary in the coal mine, their unimaginative ‘solution’ to the shit-show boarding process might indicate that American is struggling more than you think.

American Airlines has had a tough time lately.  Despite raking in record profits ($2.7 billion last year), things seem to be headed in the wrong direction.  American’s struggle with their labor groups has become much more public lately.  Pilots are upset that they are amongst the lowest paid in the industry as other airlines have boosted wages with new contracts. Pilots also stated that they have “No Confidence” in CEO Doug Parker. Flight attendants are mad that they are still dealing with post-merger scheduling woes and new uniforms that are causing rashes. One of American’s senior vice presidents for route planning departed to rival United Airlines.

Passengers aren’t feeling the love much at American lately either. American’s introduction of ‘Spirit-like’ basic-economy fares mean that you can fly for a few dollars less but don’t expect anything other than a middle seat and you better not bring anything more than a purse or laptop bag either.  To add further insult to injury, American also recently announced the removal of PTVs on the narrow-body fleet, reducing aircraft weight by a couple hundred pounds along with passenger entertainment options too. The downgrades in service come just as airlines like Delta are ADDING free meals back for coach passenger on limited domestic routes and even United unveiled a significantly upgraded business class product.

On the heels of all this negative news, how does American attempt to turn things around? They decided to tout their improved boarding process.  For anyone who has ever boarded an American flight, you probably remember that American first calls Executive platinum, Platinum, Gold, Ruby, Sapphire, Kings, Queens, Children, Priority, then groups 1-4.  It was convoluted and usually just resulted in a giant backup of people in the jetway.  The process could definitely use some improvements.  American’s new plan involves a ‘simplified’ boarding process where all of the boarding groups are segmented into nine groups.  Yep, that’s right…NINE groups.

American’s new boarding process may be simplified but it doesn’t seem to solve the real heart of the problem.

So what’s the problem with this new plan?

The unanswered question is “What problem does this solution solve?”  By our analysis, American doesn’t solve much with this new, unimaginative boarding process. With the same gaggle of people boarding by status more than location in the aircraft, it won’t make boarding much faster. It doesn’t change the order of passengers boarding to something more logical like back to front or window to aisle.  And if you are in groups 8-9, you are probably feeling pretty bad about your predicament as you realize that SEVEN full groups of people are better than you.

Is it indicative of a larger problem?

Airlines make mistakes all the time. A poorly thought out aircraft boarding process might affect on-time departures but it isn’t the end of the world.  What is sad though, is that this latest boarding debacle is indicative of an airline that is probably struggling in bigger ways.  When companies have a great culture and are doing well, they have the ability to focus on the little things that make the experience better and more positive for both employees and customers.  The solutions to challenges are creative and delightful.  American’s solution to solve the boarding process woes isn’t creative or innovative.  It’s doubtful that it will solve anything.

Good times and profits cover a multitude of sins but we all know that the industry is cyclical.  When oil rises and travel budgets fall, the weakest will struggle the most.  American’s recent woes–including how it addresses a process as benign as boarding– could be a warning that American isn’t as strong as it appears.

The new process:

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