American Airlines flight attendants sound alarm about Project Oasis

Lewis Lazare

An American Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane takes off from Los Angeles International airport.
Mike Blake | Reuters

American Airlines flight attendants, still working through a uniform crisis that dates to September 2016, are up in arms over a major retrofit project now getting underway dubbed Project Oasis.

In a nutshell, it's a project to retrofit nearly 200 Boeing (NYSE: BA) 737-800 aircraft in American's fleet to match the configuration of the much-newer Boeing 737 MAX planes that AA has only just begun to introduce into its fleet.

American has eight MAXs in service now — being flown primarily between New York City and Miami. None operates currently on flights from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, though AA is expected to have 20 in service by the end of 2018.

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The MAX is said to be more efficient with a different kind of jet engine. But AA flight attendants who have worked on the new plane are no fans of the MAX cabin configuration — hence the concern that some 200 of the Boeing 737-800s will within the next two years be revamped to mirror AA's MAX layout.

AA flight attendants don't like several aspects of the MAX layout, but the biggest point of contention is the lavatories. At a recent crew meeting with AA CEO Doug Parker presiding, a LaGuardia Airport-based flight attendant was brutally blunt about the lavs, noting "You can't get in them."

Additionally, the doors on the two lavatories in the rear of the cabin in particular have proved troublesome. According to the same flight attendant speaking to Parker, the doors are so close to each other that they often lock when two passengers exit, creating headaches for FAs trying to navigate around the galley in close proximity to the lavs.

The Chicago Business Journal obtained an audio tape of the crew meeting with Parker, who certainly listened to what the flight attendant had to say. He also countered that the feedback about the plane has been positive from passengers flying on the MAX between New York and Miami — and they are a demanding lot, Parker said.

By the end of the discussion, Parker did concede that the "slimline" design of the lavs on the MAX makes them smaller, which enables AA to fit more revenue-generating seats on the MAX.

By extension, that also would mean more seats on the 200 or so Boeing 737-800s that are about to be reconfigured.

Per diagrams included in a Project Oasis management memo obtained by the Chicago Business Journal, the reconfigured Boeing 737-800s will have 16 first-class cabin seats with a 37-inch seat pitch, down from a 39- to 40-inch pitch in the current Boeing 737-800 configuration.

The retrofitted 737s will have 30 main cabin extra seats with 33 inches of pitch, down from 34 in the existing 737-800 model configuration. There will be 126 regular economy seats with a 30-inch pitch, down from 31 inches in existing layout.

Altogether, when the Boeing 737-800 planes are retrofitted, they will hold 172 passengers compared to 160 in the existing configuration.

A spokeswoman for American insisted the new seats, which one flight attendant source called "cheap," offer more legroom despite having less seat pitch. Still, when all the reconfiguring is done in two years, some AA flight attendants worry AA customers will not be any more pleased about the layout than they are.

"Simply put, American is becoming America West," said one FA source, referring to the low-cost airline that Parker ran before AW merged with U.S. Airways, which in turn merged with American Airlines to become the world's largest airline.