Does size matter?
By Cynthia Wilson
When American Airlines cut back service Nov. 1 at Lambert Field, travelers had to adjust to more than fewer flights. The airline uses regional jets more often on nonstop routes, leaving passengers with less headroom, elbowroom, legroom and storage space.
As a result, some St. Louis-area travelers consider cabin space, in addition to flight schedules, when choosing an airline.
John Bryant of Sikeston, Mo., used to fly American Airlines almost exclusively before it cut nearly half its flights at Lambert.
Now, on trips when price and flight schedules aren't factors, the plant manager travels on whichever airline provides the most room.
"I don't like the little airplanes," he said after returning from a recent business trip to Shanghai, China. "They're too cramped."
Malcolm Sweet, president of Condaire Inc. in Crestwood, stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs about 300 pounds. The cabin space in larger jets - such as American's MD
-80s or Southwest's Boeing 737s - offers a more comfortable ride, especially on longer trips, he said.
Sweet finds that it's easier to work while traveling on larger planes. On regional jets, he said, "It's so cramped, it's difficult to get anything out to even read."
Like most major airlines, American is struggling to become profitable again. One strategy to improve the bottom line is using more regional jets, which bring more profit per passenger.
The smaller jets also make it possible to maintain service to many cities that otherwise might have been eliminated from American's schedule Nov. 1, company officials said.
Despite the flight cuts, 70 percent of air travelers in St. Louis go places where American offers nonstop service, said C. David Cush, vice president and general sales manager in charge of global sales for the airline, based in Fort Worth, Texas.
American still provides the most flights on larger planes at Lambert, he noted.
"Whether we're first choice (of travelers) or not, we certainly have the best schedule in St. Louis," Cush said. "We're on course to grow (in) St. Louis, which may mean larger planes where regional jets fly now, or it may be more regional-jet frequencies."
Cush visited St. Louis on Feb. 5 and attended a luncheon the airline held for corporate customers, top travel agencies, and representatives of key civic and charitable organizations.
In an interview, Cush said he wants customers to know American is in St. Louis to stay.
The message will be reinforced through a seven-person sales team based in St. Louis, he said. The team will call on corporate customers to help the airline with understanding their travel needs and will develop relationships with large travel agencies. The sales team also will become more involved in community events and charities.
But the airline's message to business and other types of travelers might be a hard sell, said Liese Hutchison, an associate professor specializing in public relations at St. Louis University.
"It seems that nothing that was promised was delivered" after American's acquisition of Trans World Airlines' assets in 2001, she said. "People felt betrayed when American promised to come in and save the hub," jobs and service.
Whether American chooses to run advertising or have more face-to-face contact with customers, she said, it's essential that the airline address their concerns.
"It's an image issue," Hutchison said. "They need to rebuild relationships with people who have left the airline for whatever reason."
Robert Schainker, manager of Carlson Wagonlit/Jan's Travel in Kirkwood, said American has the largest network of any airline in the world, but cutbacks in St. Louis have diminished the value of the product for some fliers.
Fewer nonstop flights are forcing many American Airlines passengers to connect more often through another city. And the increased use of regional jets means passengers spend more time in smaller spaces traveling longer distances, Schainker said.
Before the airline restructured its Lambert operations, a flight on a regional jet averaged 300 miles. Today, the average distance is 700 miles on flights operated by Trans States Airlines, said William Mishk, vice president of planning for Trans States.
St. Louis-based Trans States provides the most regional-jet service at Lambert for American under the AmericanConnection brand.
Perhaps with a bit of irony, "more legroom throughout coach" remains the cornerstone of American's marketing strategy nationwide.
Cush said local customers got used to such creature comforts after American bought TWA out of bankruptcy three years ago. TWA used larger jets on most flights at Lambert until February 2000, when its pilots amended their contract to allow the airline to use 50-seat regional jets.
Many of TWA's rivals, including American, had been using regional jets for nearly a decade. Alone, the St. Louis market couldn't fill many of the large jets, said Cush, former vice president of American's hub in St. Louis.
Still, he said, the latest sales push is not an effort by American to reposition itself in the minds of St. Louis-area travelers. The airline is pleased with the way its corporate customer accounts are performing in St. Louis, he said.
And not all passengers object to the smaller airplanes.
"I thought it wouldn't be as comfortable. But it doesn't bother me at all," Nancy Steinman of Columbia, Mo., said after a recent flight to St. Louis. "They give the same service, and I've always had a smooth flight."
Tripp Frohlichstein, owner of MediaMasters in Kirkwood, said he's satisfied with the regional-jet service and isn't bothered that he has less room to work while traveling. He especially likes that he can check and pick up his carry-on luggage outside the plane's door.
Frohlichstein's biggest complaint: He gets less use out of his frequent-flier plan.
"The only disappointment for someone with a lot of frequent-flier miles is fewer opportunities to travel first class," he said. "(American's) regional jets don't have first-class seating."
In addition to roomier seating, first-class passengers board before other travelers, receive free alcoholic beverages, are served meals on china and can hang their coats in a closet.
Cush said he knows business travelers place a premium on upgrades. As the airline's performance improves in St. Louis and as travel patterns warrant, American plans to replace some regional jets with large planes, as it recently did on flights between St. Louis and Washington.
If demand were to improve, but not enough to support larger jets, the airline would increase the number of nonstop flights in and out of St. Louis, he said.
For now, the financial performance of the Lambert operation has "significantly improved," and it's second only to American's operation in Dallas, Cush said.
Regional jets contributed to that turnaround.
"Going from bigger planes to the regional jets will probably take time to adjust," Cush said. "The world's a different place than it was two years ago. We think we've shown our commitment to the community."
Challenges and opportunities
Despite schedule cuts at Lambert Field and expended use of smaller jets, American Airlines says it's in St. Louis to stay. To reinforce that message, the airline's seven-person St. Louis sales team will ...
Call on corporate customers to understand their travel needs.
Develop relationships with large travel agencies.
Become more involved in community events and charities.
Many travelers felt betrayed when American Airlines cut back St. Louis service last year, St. Louis University professor Liese Hutchison says. To rebuild trust, she says, the airline must ...
Work with the business community to determine what routes, direct flights, fares and packages would benefit both parties.
Listen to employees and work with them to meet organizational goals.
Partner with community groups, citizen committees and others on projects that benefit the airline and its passengers.
"We're on course to grow (in) St. Louis, which may mean larger planes where regional jets fly now, or it may be more regional-jet frequencies." There is another sign that the Stl quazi-hub is performing well. They mentioned the transition from smaller to larger jets will take a long time, but hey, I'm willing to wait. Them positioning a seven member team into STL
is showing AA
's continued interest in St Louis. Hopefully, that restructuring that took place in November will benefit AA
in the long run.