FIRST LOOK: What American’s New Tightest Ever Coach Seats Are Really Like

American Airlines is introducing 30 inch pitch coach seating — that’s the distance from seat back to seat back — on their new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, and they’ll be retrofitting their existing 737s to match so they can squeeze more seats onto the aircraft.

They argue the seats will give passengers as much personal space as they have today, even though seats are closer together. And they displayed the seats publicly for the first time today.

Currently the tightest coach seats from major US airlines is 31 inches. Delta pledges never to go below 31 (though I don’t take such promises seriously). American had planned for some seats to have just 29 inches, but backed off that plan amidst public outcry.

They’re not removing seats from the plane to stay at 30 inches, they’re going to take away a row of Main Cabin Extra seats which have more legroom. So there will be fewer seats on the plane where you can escape tight seating. Oh and they’re shrinking the lavatories too.

American has claimed you won’t notice the difference pushing seats closer together.

  • They’re using slimline seats with less padding, so your legroom won’t actually suffer (just, potentially, your back and your bum)
  • They won’t offer seat back video screens (you have to use your own device for entertainment) freeing up some space in front ofyou
  • The seats don’t recline as much (2 inches versus the current 4 inches) so your personal space gets protected

Less seat padding, no video screens, and less recline are the arguments American is using for why this won’t be a worse experience.

They’ve also managed to widen the seats half an inch by fitting each row more snugly against the windows.

I sat in American’s new Boeing 737 MAX coach seats on at Media Day. They were in a hotel conference room, not on a plane. And I sat for a few minutes, not for several hours. So it’s difficult to judge what they’ll be like in practice.

American set up the seats and beside them was a set of current Boeing 737 coach seats to compare.

I did find the new seats tight. Are they tighter than regular coach? It’s hard to say. I appreciated that the seat in front of me didn’t recline much and it was easier to keep my laptop open-ish on my tray table. An extra half inch of width is appreciated.

I don’t think the legroom was especially different. I did feel like it was a claustrophobic seat, and having the seat in front of me closer at shoulder level is where things felt tight.

And I don’t know how the seat itself will feel on a long flight. American says they aren’t going to use their 737 MAXs to go transatlantic, even though they have the range. But they’ll still go on long missions — this configuration will become a mainstay of the domestic fleet, and operate long flights like Miami to Seattle.

Southwest has very similar seats with greater pitch and I don’t mind them on the flights I take but it’s nothing longer than Washington National – Austin non-stop. I’ll take the Southwest flight over connecting and a possible upgrade every time now, and I often manage to score an exit row with an empty middle.

Personally the tight quarters increase the overall stressfulness of the trip, and color my perceptions of everything else. With high load factors I don’t expect an empty middle very often. And even as an elite frequent flyer I’ll wind up in these on American and not always Main Cabin Extra seats with more legroom — remember, there will be fewer of those seats than planned, and when you change flights or buy travel super close in extra legroom may not be available.

At the end of the day sitting in the seats for a few minutes (not hours) didn’t seem that much worse,
but:

  • We weren’t comparing to American’s current worst coach product
  • Even if we conclude the two are ‘the same’ that isn’t an argument for 30 inch pitch, it’s an argument for these new seats and 31 inches of pitch.

Ultimately it will be a question of how the body feels in tight quarters on a full aircraft for three to five hours — not 5 minutes in a hotel with high ceilings and no other passengers around — that will determine whether American has gone too far and whether customers book away from the product.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Doug Parker should be required to fly in those seats whenever he travels. So he could have first hand knowledge on what his customers experience.

  2. { am currently a retied pilot from Piedmont/USAir and after viewing the seat setup must conclude having a bad case of claustrophobia… I will forgo pass travel and buy a First Class ticket if I ever feel the need to travel by air again …….

  3. The extra half inch of width is illusory. Where many people experience discomfort is at the shoulder. Moving the seats closer to the window means the A and F seat passengers are just shoved inwards more, thus looming over the middle seat armrest.

    A 737 is never going to be wider than it is. There is no more shoulder room available. The tube is 50 years old in design and inadequate to the dimensions of the 21st century, no matter how AA (of SWA with their narrower armrests, whatever other games other airlines play…) spins this.

    Any flight over 2 hours on a 737 (or a 757, alas) that is over about 75% full is just misery. All the more that shame that Boeing has attacked the newest, most comfortable cross-section, the C-Series. Passengers will keep paying the comfort price for Boeing’s dominance.

  4. I predict a class-action lawsuit in the years to come. Certainly being forced to extreme confinement has long term damaging affects on the skeletal system.

  5. “AA is now better positioned to win the race to the bottom.”

    AT LAST! They can beat Delta at something!!! (Not that I fly DL either, but . . . )

  6. Seriously, I’ve yet to fly anywhere domestically where I haven’t had an EASY ALTERNATIVE that the US Legacy 3 . . . WITHOUT having to resort to the ULLCs like Spirit. Between AS, VX, B6, and WN, I can go anywhere I want/need to. Now I certainly realize this isn’t the case for everyone — some small airports are only served by an American Eagle or United Express, for example — but I am perhaps fortunate in that I have no need for the legacy carriers.

  7. Did AA mention the average cost savings each customer can expect to see based upon their improved capacity? If the ticket cost only drops $5, they may never see the ROI materialize because they risk, in the long term, flying with many empty seats, which has caused the demise of many airlines.

  8. Doug Parker recently said to reporters that American will never lose money again! While I want them to succeed, configuring a plane ride to maximize profit at the expense and pain of passengers is right up there with ruining their advantage program and all the other changes he has masterminded since he took over. Adding dollar requirements to gain elite status??Isn’t 100,000 miles tough enough??How about calculating miles based on money spent??Do you think Delta had a good idea and just copied them??By the way, Delta lets you earn elite status by charging on their credit card, so their changes gave you options. American only gives you some elite miles after charging a huge sum on their card. Do they somehow benefit from having fewer executive platinum members? Has anyone tried to book two seats with mileage saver fares on the same flight or is traveling with your wife something they discourage. I was executive platinum for many years and only flew American. Now I spend my money elsewhere.. I would like American to show the same loyalty that we gave them. Treat your passengers to the best seat flying, not the worst. Ok, close to the worst. This is not a contest to the bottom. No matter what Doug Parker thinks!

  9. I really don’t understand why coach seats need to recline at all. I’m 6’2″ and my knees get crunched every time someone in front of me decides they need more room. I recently filled out a survey from the above airline and there were questions specifically about discomfort related to reclining seats in front of me, so I’m guessing I’m not alone. 2″ vs 4″, really? Just go with 0″

  10. Good thing we have a choice of other carriers to fly on: Continental, America West, TWA, Northwest, Piedmont, Air Tran, etc. Nothing like competition to make airlines compete for passengers! Oh.. um… whoops.

  11. I agree, the experience will be miserable. More people, tighter layout, less padding. These seats offer little back support and will (literally) be a pain in the backside…
    While I always recline my seat (due to a back problem), I do agree that in these tight quarters, it’s better they don’t recline at all. I actually prefer them fixed at a slight angle (some airline called it “pre reclined”) – slightly more comfortable and no fighting over reclining…
    I’ll do my best to avoid it…

  12. Yes aa will never lose money again?? Put these on all your markets and see how fast people leave! Usair has DESTROYED AA!!

  13. Smaller seats go way beyond the discomfort of sitting like sardines for duration of the flight. What people are forgetting about is the peripheral damage caused by adding more cramped seats. More people trying to use the same amount of lavatories means longer wait times and congested aisles. More baggage, but the same amount of baggage space. A longer boarding and deplaning process. More people, but same amount of time to evacuate and greater difficulty getting out of your seat to the aisle means fewer survivors. More people, but the same number of flight attendants to complete a service. Cramped seats mean more people standing in the aisle doing yoga, slowing down the aisle traffic to lavs and also slowing down service. Not to mention higher tensions and even more fights onboard than we are seeing currently. Nothing good will come from taking away the tiny bit of breathing room that we have today. The airlines will pay for any extra profits with bad publicity and lawsuits.

  14. Am I the only one who noticed that the magazine is positioned perfectly in the seat back so that it reads F U?
    How terribly appropriate.

  15. Well they may as well remove the bathrooms because no one will be able to get up to use them. Hawaiian airlines has a “pre-reclined” to 20 degree and a 29-31 seat pitch with the new skinny padded seats… but then that is on inter-island flights where the longest route is under 1 hour.

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