Free snacks and pyjamas: US airlines up their game to woo Australian passengers

American Airlines will add premium economy class to most of its international aircraft from late 2016.

It’s no secret that American airlines have long had a bad reputation among Australians. For many travellers, they conjure up images of old planes, surly flight attendants and a sub-par meal service.

The good news is the big US airlines are now acknowledging the perception is grounded in truth – and facing increased competition from Gulf carriers in the international market and hip domestic carriers like Virgin America and JetBlue, they are working rapidly to improve.

American Airlines on Wednesday unveiled plans for a new premium economy cabin to be rolled out on its international aircraft from late 2016, offering a similar type of service to its partner airline Qantas – including more legroom, wider seats, noise-cancelling headphones, amenity kits and an enhanced meal service.

“Our customers tell us they want a class of service between business class and main cabin, and this feedback provided the genesis for our new premium economy service,” said Andrew Nocella, American’s chief marketing officer. “Premium economy is offered today by many premier carriers around the world. We studied those offerings and developed a world-class product.”

Virgin Australia’s trans-Pacific partner, Delta Air Lines, is meanwhile transforming its extra-legroom Comfort+ section to a more proper premium economy cabin. United Airlines, which flies to Sydney and Melbourne, on Wednesday said it would bring back free snacks to economy class on domestic US flights used by many Australians to connect to cities beyond Los Angeles and San Francisco.

“We’re refocussing on the big and little things that we know matter to our customers, and shape how they feel about their travel experience,” said Jimmy Samartzis, United’s vice president of food services and United Clubs.

Free beer and wine

In June, United re-introduced complimentary beer and wine in economy class on its trans-Pacific services, in a move no doubt popular with Australian travellers who typically expect to have free alcohol on international flights.

In business class, Australian travellers have long been partial to pyjamas on long-haul flights, but they haven’t been on offer from the US carriers plying the trans-Pacific route. For sleepwear enthusiasts, that could be enough to tip the scales toward flying Qantas or Virgin rather than the US carriers.

But that’s about to change, too, with American offering pyjamas in business class when it begins flying the Sydney-Los Angeles route next week and Delta also adding sleepwear to its business class. United may not be far behind, amid reports on Wednesday that pyjamas were under consideration. United also recently improved its business class amenity kits.

American is also trying hard to attract well-heeled Australians to its first class cabin, with the carrier reportedly stocking four bottles of 2010 Penfolds Grange Shiraz on its inaugural Sydney-Los Angeles flights next week.

American chief Doug Parker travelled to Australia with his senior executive team last month to show off the carrier’s flagship Boeing 777-300ER offering, trying to combat lingering perceptions that US carriers couldn’t meet Australian customer standards.

“If you haven’t flown American Airlines in a while, we look forward to having you back on,” he said at the time. “It is a new, modern American Airlines.”

Yan Baczkowski

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