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,
- 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.