This inaugural, flight 963, from Dallas/Ft. Worth to São Paulo, Brazil in the author’s view is one of the most significant in the airline industry in years because it is about something much bigger than just the launch of a new airliner, it’s about the re-birth of a proud American institution that happens to bear the name of our country – American Airlines.
American Airlines problems are well known. After becoming the world’s largest airline with its 2000 acquisition of TWA, the 2000s were not kind at all to the Silver Bird. TWA and American merged during an economic downturn and by most accounts, the merger was anything but an unqualified success. American shed most of TWA’s assets, routes, staff, and many of its aircraft. On September 11th, 2 of American’s airliners, their crew, and passengers were forever lost in the atrocities of this horrible day. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the world’s airline industry hemorrhaged with the U.S. legacy carriers losing more money during this time then they had profited in their entire history. All of them declared Chapter 11, with the exception of American. Under the category of “no good deed goes unpunished”, this decision would come back to haunt American for years. The competitors were able to re-organize, upgrade service, rebrand their images, get their costs under control, renew their fleets, expand their route structure, and finally in the case of Continental/United and Delta/Northwest consolidate into mega-carriers that dwarfed American. American was left with a barrage of serious problems: a revolving door in the executive ranks, fractious management and labor relations, dwindling market share, increasingly massive financial losses as their competitors recorded profits, devastating operational problems of which many were self-inflicted, an aging fleet, outdated and stripped down in-flight passenger service, soaring operating expenses, declining bookings, and a very unsympathetic press that at times almost seemed on a witch hunt. Like Pan Am and other failed airlines there were a few bright spots: the extremely profitable Latin American hub, the North Atlantic / London Heathrow joint-venture with British Airways, the strong and dominant hubs particularly at DFW and Miami, strength on the highly profitable trans-continental services particular JFK-LAX, and many proud employees across all positions who still believed their company could once again live up to American’s 1980s advertising claim that they were “Something Special in the Air”.
But the headwinds seemed to far outweigh the tailwinds and finally on November 29, 2011 American filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy becoming the last U.S. legacy carrier to do so. On top of that, US Airways began aggressively pursuing a merger, securing an agreement with the pilots unions. Then came the 2012 “Summer of Discontent” with flight cancellations and operations disruptions that sent customers into the arms of their competitors and who can forget the seats onboard a few 757s becoming unbolted during flights. It would have been understandable for the once proud Eagle to fold its wings. If the one unthinkable collapses of majors like Pan Am and Eastern occurred, could American meet the same fate?
It may be hard to remember, but since the beginning of commercial aviation: American was an innovating pace setter in the industry, and generally a profitable one at that. In many ways, American virtually wrote the history of the airline industry: American introduced the airliner that changed aviation, the Douglas DC-3. The first non-stop transcontinental services were flown by American in 1953 and then they pioneered the first regularly scheduled domestic jet services in 1959. Their legendary CEO C.R. Smith, along with an American 707 Astroliner, appeared on the cover of Time Magazine for this honor. American was the launch customer for other airline types such as the Douglas DC-10 (which was based on their specifications) and the blazingly fast Convair 990. American even leased to NASA and maintain the 747s used to ferry the Space Shuttle. Of even greater significance, American introduced the first airline computer reservation system, Sabre, back in 1961. In 1981, they created the world’s first frequent flyer program, still known as AAdvantage. Under their controversial but genius CEO Robert Crandall, American became the leader in dynamic pricing and computerized yield management as well as cost control, which made the airline very profitable. They were even the first airline to introduce a wireless app back in 1999 on the Palm Pilot, long before they were in vogue. Along the way, they acquired numerous airlines such as Trans Caribbean, AirCal, RenoAir, and finally TWA.
With that spirit of innovation and comeback even in the face of severe turbulence, American chose to move forward even before the Chapter 11 filing. On January 19, 2011 American became the first U.S. airline to order the Boeing 777-300 ER, the world’s most successful twin-engine airliner. Initially ordering 2 and then upping the order to 10 with options to covert other Dash 200s, AA would initially use the 777-300 ER on super high density premium routes to South America and London from their major hubs at DFW, MIA, LAX, ORD, and JFK. London Heathrow was announced as the initial destinations, but perhaps in a nod to the importance of Latin America and particularly economically booming Brazil, São Paolo became the inaugural destination. The first 2 777-300ERs delivered are scheduled to only be deployed on this route through March until London Heathrow is added until March.
On July 20, 2011 American ordered $13 billion worth of 460 narrow-body Boeing and Airbus aircraft, the largest commercial aircraft order in history. This fleet renewal, designed to replace the aging MD-80s, 757s, and 767-200s, consists of 200 aircraft from the Boeing 737 family: The 737-700, 800, 900ER, and the new ultra fuel-efficient 737 Max (which it launched). From Airbus, a company previous management had vowed never to do business with again, American ordered 260 aircraft from the Airbus A320 family including the 320, 320 Neo, and new 321 which would become the new Transcontinental Flagship with a game changing cabin experience beginning in November, 2013. Reportedly, the airline gained even better terms in negotiations during bankruptcy. Even after the bankruptcy filing AA continued other upgrades such as Wi-Fi across the domestic fleet and international satellite Wi-Fi for international flights, new Boeing Sky Cabin equipped 737s at the rate of approximately 3 per month, Samsung Galaxy tablets for use by premium passengers for in-flight entertainment and by flight crew for a myriad of flight information, in-fight streaming of movies and video content, and innovative new pricing options called “Choice”. The long in the tooth vintage 1980s and 90s era cabins received much attention as well new extended legroom Main Cabin Extra, a new transcontinental Flagship Business and First Class product with lie-flat seats, a new long-haul Business and First Class product debuting on today’s 777-300 flight, and new leather seats in economy. Power on demand throughout all new aircraft and cabins would become the exception rather than the rule. American also confirmed its order for the arrival of 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners commencing in 2014-15. Unlike many airlines that wait for exiting from bankruptcy before announcing upgrades, American announced many of these changes from the outset of its reorganization and continued throughout the proceedings even during the US Airways merger discussions.
Almost 2 years after placing the order, on December 11, 2012 Boeing delivered the first 777-323ER to American. The plane, sans fanfare was ferried in its still anonymous scheme from Everett’s Paine Field to the DFW base and quickly placed in a hanger. A second 777-300ER (N718AN) was delivered quietly on December 19th with the next 8 following in 2014. These planes were delivered a bit late, reportedly due to the new Zodiac UK First Class seats not being ready in time postponing the inaugural from early January 2013 to January 31. A 3rd 777-300ER was delivered in early January while its stable mates made a few proving trips, including the MIA hub to test the IFE and Satellite Wi-Fi.
After a tough fall, American began to gather momentum in its operational and financial results. It reported revenue of $24.9 billion in 2012, the highest in company history and a full-year operating profit of $494 million, excluding special items, a $749 million improvement over 2011. These were impressive, especially given the operational issues of the Summer and Fall and losses cased by Hurricane Sandy.
Perhaps the most excitement surrounded the mystery of the new brand. There have been rumors for years that the airline’s 1968 era and virtually unchanged since then, signature polished aluminum look and Massimo Vignelli’s stylized Eagle would be replaced. Since Eastern’s demise, American is the only major U.S. airline that leaves the majority of its aircraft surfaces unpainted. This was because C. R. Smith hated painted aircraft, and refused to use any liveries that involved painting the entire plane. Robert “Bob” Crandall later justified the distinctive natural aluminum finish by noting that less paint reduced the aircraft’s weight, thus saving on fuel costs. With new aircraft like the 787 Dreamliner and Boeing 737 Max coming online having more composite surfaces, the unpainted look technically would no longer be possible. This rebrand was more than a rumor, one that CEO Tom Horton did little to discourage. When the first 777-300 ER (N717AN) rolled out in late October, 2012, with a gray fuselage and white tail, it virtually confirmed a new livery was in the works. The blogosphere went abuzz with speculations and designs of what that might look like, but American kept this as tight as a state secret. Suddenly in the early morning hours of January 17, 2013, American Airlines sent out a press advisory that the new look and livery would be introduced to the world at 9:00AM CST that same day with a live webcast. Immediately, a 2 hour countdown began on the airline’s website, AA.com. At the appointed hour, a stream of a pre-produced video began featuring CEO Tom Horton recounting the history of American and its progress in reinventing itself and then with the CEO’s words ““Since placing our landmark aircraft order in July of 2011, we’ve been building anticipation toward a moment in time when the outside of our aircraft reflects the progress we’ve made to modernize our airline on the inside”, a computer graphic montage of the Boeing 777-300ER with the new look appeared on-screen. But where was the real thing? In true cloak and dagger form, while everyone was expecting one of the 777-300ERs to be the first painted in the scheme, a Boeing 737-800 arrived stealthily that morning from Victorville, CA emblazoned with the new look. The 777-300ERs were spirited out the night before the reveal for their visit to the paint shot with the first returning painted the Sunday before the inaugural. As an aside, Virasb Vahidi, American’s Chief Commercial Office revealed to Dallas TV station WFAA that the new look and logo had been finalized a year ago. He was amazed that that “the new look didn’t leak”. American’s CEO Horton only tipped US Airways CEO Doug Parker the night before that the reveal would be the next morning, but was quoted as saying the US Airways team did not see it before nor have any input. American said that by the end of 2013, they expected a third of the fleet to features the look with all planes completed within 5 years. The website and Twitter feed immediately changed to the clean, new look.
The new Futurebrand designed livery features a silver mica paint that was chosen as a way to maintain the heritage of the unpainted aluminum look. Just beyond the flight deck, the updated Eagle insignia features the beak pointing right with a blue and red geometric shape flanking it on top and bottom. Aft of the logo, The word “American” dominates the forward fuselage top to bottom. It is evocative of the Pan Am “Billboard” look of the 1980s and was one of the rumors that turned out to be correct. These elements were generally well received as “elegant”, “clean”, and “a needed update”, though some did compare the new logo to that of Greyhound Bus. Personally, I found the fuselage an elegant and sophisticated change. The tail itself, with its 11 red and white stripes and 7 blue bars echoing an American flag met with decidedly mixed reaction. Some called it “gaudy”, “fugly”, though most agreed it was “patriotic”. Others went so far as to compare it to Aeroflot (due to the abstract flag design concept on the tail and silver fuselage paint) with many questioning why some iteration of the classic and beloved Eagle icon wasn’t used on the tail. Many pundits openly hoped that if there is indeed a merger with USAirways that the airline would change course. Unsurprisingly, the classic 1968 logo’s designer Massimo Vignelli was the harshest pundit saying in “Business Week” that “the new logo has no sense of a permanence. There was no need to change. I bet this logo won’t last 25 years”. Initial reactions to changing icons like American’s iconic Eagle or United’s Sal Bass designed Tulip are often very critical, so this was to be expected. In my opinion, the new “Soaring Spirit” look is necessary upgrade given the need of American to re-position itself in the minds of the flying public. Upon seeing it in person I found it quite striking and believe it will grown on people, though certainly not everyone agrees. Virtually everyone agrees, however, that a new livery is just paint and “window dressing” so the real test would be the airline’s new product on the ground and in the air. Fans of the current livery will be pleased to know that American will be retaining 1 of their aircraft in the current livery as a “new” Retrojet (possibly the Susan B Komen 777), as well as the current “AstroJet” 737.
The day began with a contingent of press crawling around and photographing the cabin, more on that later. The 2 Boeing 777-300ERs were at Gate D-23 (our inaugural aircraft) and another unpainted at D-24 for an employee event and to be used as backup. For an inaugural, the gate events were remarkably low-key. Missing were the obligatory ribbon cutting, cake cutting, ice sculpture, and balloon canopy. Downplaying the event seemed intentional because in this transition period with so much “up in the air”, AA had to strike the right tone in not wanting to seem extravagant or over-the-top. With this being mostly a revenue flight with very few VIPs, many in the gate weren’t even aware of the significance of the moment. There was a small snack buffet including 777 commemorative cookies, some “New American” signage, and a few words from American CEO Tom Horton and Chief Commercial Officer Virasb Vahidi with a particular shout out to the onboard products design team led by Alice Lieu. With that, the boarding began of this entirely sold out flight.
The Panasonic eX2 IFE is much improved and enlarged over the old system that I always found particularly poor. It’s new touch screen user interface is much more responsive the catalog of 120 movies, 150 TV shows, and more than 350 audio selections is much more impressive. Tom Horton points out that there are enough entertainment options for 15 trips around the world. The GUI has a fluid, user-friendly operation similar to Apple’s Cover-flow. The system currently operates on the Linux Platform but will be switching to the Android Platform in November 2014. The Moving Maps are the main area that will be improved with ultra-high resolution user controllable Google Maps. The Ku-Band Satellite Panasonic Wi-Fi, so highly touted, functioned intermittently on the flight. Normally priced between $12-$19 USD, the Wi-Fi was free and once we entered Brazil it functioned more reliably. American, who ran a special test flight for connectivity, can’t be happy nor were the social media folks American had in the back tweeting the flight. American had even run a special proving flight over Mexico, Gulf of Mexico, and Miami just for the IFE and connectivity but this new route into deep South America was new for the technology. Panasonic actually had crew onboard the flight troubleshooting the problem. The flight crew apologized on the P/A for the service issues.
Even the Main Cabin received some love with Main Cabin Extra Weber seats boasting a 17” width, 35” pitch, and a roomy 8 abreast configuration in its 30 leather seats, similar to JV partner British Airways offering. The standard Economy Cabin’s 214 seats were also leather-clad but remained at 31” pitch and 9 abreast. New seatback 9” touch-screen AVOD IFE’s using the Panasonic Eco monitor and personal 110 Volt power ports are located at every seat. By swiping your hand in front of the monitor, the controls illuminate. Both seats have a higher pivot providing increased knee room and an articulating seat bottom, which provides a greater, recline angle. The new Main Cabin is a major improvement over the status quo.
Our very senior flight crew consists of 3 Captains on the flight deck under the command of Captain John Hale, the VP of 777 Flight Operations who is joined by Captain Bill Elder, Fleet Training and Familiarization, and Captain and 777 Examiner David Schelener. Typical flights have a Captain, First Officer, and International Officer. Schelener, who has flown every widebody in the AA fleet dating back to the 747 remarks that the 777-300 is basically a “very smooth sports car, similar to the 777-200 but with more mass, more thrust, and a fasting cruising speed of .89”. The iPAD equipped, roomy flight deck is a pilot favorite made all the more spacious with the absence of the 42 pound brain bag.
55 minutes into the flight American’s top 2 executives CEO Horton and Chief Commercial Officer Vahidi serve champagne to the entire flight. With the bubbly served, Horton makes a toast “I really like to fly as a passenger and a weekend pilot, but I won’t be at the controls. I am an aviation geek but I won’t be flying”. He offers a few neat stats: The 777-300ER has 134 miles of wiring enough to stretch from Dallas to Austin, it accelerates from 0-60 in less then 6 seconds, and the Wi-Fi will connect to 3 different satellites. Even with the airline’s status up in the air, he proclaims this flight as “the beginning of the New American with lots more to come”.
Nearly 90 minutes since take-off. The LED lights are dimmed to American’s unique blue ceiling and red side-panels display signaling the beginning of the meal service. This isn’t just any meal service; this is the launch of American’s new International Premium Service, which replaces the Flagship Service. Yes, the Sundaes are still there (a favorite of founder C.R. Smith), but everything else is new. Explains Flight Service Manager Leland Hinley: “The customer has changed. They want lighter and more universal options in a more elegant setting. We have no logo on our new china, new white linen, full sized flatware, all meals plated in Premium Cabins, and soon even real stem wine glasses in Business. We are going for a 5-Star dining experience of a fine restaurant in the air.” The only hitch is that the wrong Business Class menus are on our flight, but no matter – the selection is still extensive. I chose a shrimp and lentil starter, a Curry Chicken and Rice entrée’, and a side of pretzel bread. Being sadly lactose intolerant, I now have to pass on the famous Sundae’s. Flight attendants are given 1 day training in the new service, and are clearly working very hard but they are still efficient and very friendly in spite of the stress of seemingly being short 1 or 2 people. By now, this article must seem like a gloat fest but I was very impressed by the entire service. It was the best service and food I have ever experienced on a U.S. carrier, one that compares very favorably with the world’s premium carriers.
With the meal service completed, the action shifts over to American’s new 777-300 standup bars, a first for a U.S. carrier since the 1970s. It’s stocked with soft drinks, snacks, and water. As its unmanned, alcohol has to be ordered at the passenger’s seat. It quickly becomes a popular place to congregate in spite of the very late hour. With our conveyance approaching South America, the lights are dimmed with 5 hours left to go to allow everyone to sleep. The seats become very comfortable flat beds, but with the stormy ITCZ (Intertropical Convergence Zone) in full force, the flight was quite turbulent most of the way, but though the 777-300 isn’t immune from Mother Nature, she handled the weather with aplomb. Stepping the Dash 300 up to 37,000 feet, the flight crew skillfully earned their keep tonight and deviated around all sorts of weather that is common in the Amazon Basin.
One hour before landing we were served a light breakfast consisting of cereal or an asparagus omelet with a lovely apricot sauce accompanied by fruit and potatoes. This was a very brisk service. The only hitch is when one of the galley ovens failed causing the meal to be lukewarm. The meal trays were quickly picked up and we were in our descent into smooth air (finally!).
After 9 hours and 18 minutes in the air, at 10:06AM local time, we touchdown smoothly at São Paulo GRU’s to another round of thunderous cheers. After a quick taxi, we were treated to a water cannon salute just short of our gate in Terminal 2. Even with all the deviation for weather, and the water cannon salute, we arrived 1 minute ahead of schedule. The entire flight crew and some fellow journalists would have just over 14 hours before turning around back to DFW but even though everyone seemed exhausted, I got the feeling that they all were excited to do it again!
There are still many unanswered questions for American Airlines but if this flight and the new product are any indication, this Eagle is rising from the ashes just like a Phoenix. Whether a certain Phoenix based carrier is part of this future isn’t known yet. From a passenger perspective, this is one of the very best flights I have ever been on regardless of airline, aircraft, and destination. Just taking this particular flight, American leaps up with the best of its One World partners such as British Airways and Cathay Pacific. Even though I am press, I chose to pay for this flight entirely at my own expense. I am a very frequent traveler on American, given my Miami home-base, so my expectations were high and hopeful that they would live up to all the hype. I am happy to report my expectations were exceeded on virtually all accounts. Reiterating this was just one flight and service, the true measure of success and changing public perception will be how these changes affect the entire experience from 777-300ER Flagship service all the way to an American Eagle ERJ-145 Main Cabin flight from Amarillo to DFW, and flight on the system. American has made it clear that the goal is a fundamental change encompassing every part of its operation and in-flight experience. As a customer and journalist, I am keenly interested in this story as it unfolds. Stay Tuned…
This post is dedicated to NYCAviation Co-Founder and Co-Owner Matt Molnar who tragically passed away last week at the age of 33. Matt embodied the best qualities in all of us: passion, smarts, wit, and he was a gentle soul. #AvGeek or not, if you knew Matt, your life was better for it. If anyone would’ve enjoyed this trip and covered the Hell out of this story, it would have been him. God Speed Dude.
Special Thanks to: American Airlines’ Andrea Hugely, Kent Powell, Lauren Mungula, and Dori Robau Alvarez for their assistance in this article.