Boeing 737 MAX Inaugural Flight: What American’s New ‘No Legroom’ Plane Is Really Like

American Airlines almost introduced coach seats with 29 inch pitch coach seating — that’s the distance from seat back to seat back — on their new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. Not all the coach seats, just a few rows. And there was an outcry from the public and from embarrassed employees, since the current standard for a mainline legacy airline is 31 inches.

They backed off the 29 inch plans but their new standard is 30 inches in coach. The idea is to squeeze in more seats, and they doing it by taking away legroom both from first class and economy, by shrinking the lavatories, and by uncovering every inch of underutilized space on the plane. Even the bulkheads between first class and coach are gone.

In late September American Airlines displayed their new seats at Media and Investor day in Dallas. I didn’t like them, but you can’t really get a sense for what it’s like to sit in a slimline seat with less padding (to give back legroom, since the seats are closer together) by plopping down in one for a couple of minutes in a hotel ballroom. I needed to experience it on a flight.

I booked myself onto American’s inaugural Boeing 737 MAX 8 this morning from Miami to New York LaGuardia to see what it was like up close and personal.

I booked into economy and took myself off the upgrade list. I sat myself in regular economy, not Main Cabin Extra so I’d get the 30 inches of pitch. I did get to board the plane early to take photos.

    It turns out the seats themselves are no worse than American’s current coach product. The power and overhead bin situation is an improvement.

    First class is a modest downgrade with less legroom and the ‘new US Airways seats’ that have less recline. Avoid row 6.

Features of Coach on the 737 MAX

The word is ‘densification’ this plane is all about squeezing in more passengers. When US Airways took over American they increased the number of seats onboard 737s from 150 to 160. Now they’ve managed to get 172 onto the plane.

Part of how they do it is by stealing back an inch of legroom from pretty much every seat. They make up for the lack of seat ‘pitch’, giving back legroom, by installing a thinner seat. Those may not be great on your back and your bum. They give you extra space at chest and eye level by not offering seat back television screens (which are heavy and burn fuel) and limiting how much the seats recline (2 inches versus 4 inches).

There’s a bit of extra seat width which comes from pushing seats flush up against the windows, but that means angling your leg against the window if you’re in the window seat. And they’ve narrowed the armrests somewhat.

On the other hand there are real innovations in the seat. The tablet holder is around chest level and is separate from the tray table.

And it’s right beside the USB port which is brilliant. There’s AC power at every seat as well, it’s underneath the seat in front of you rather than underneath your own seat so it’s easier to get at.

The aircraft has satellite internet which is faster than air to ground, and huge overhead bins that store bags sideways offering much greater bag capacity but unfortunately passengers don’t realize this and naturally want to stow their bags flat rather than on their sides.

Flight attendants went around moving bags to utilize the space more effectively. Customers are going to need some training to take advantage of this great feature.

How Do You Even Go to the Bathroom In This Thing?

To squeeze in more seats they shrunk the lavatories. I fit but my sides touch the wall and the sink while facing the toilet.

I really don’t know how someone 250 pounds or more is going to fit, but perhaps more importantly how do you change a diaper in this thing? There’s a changing table that folds down but the lavatory is so narrow you’d better potty train your kid before they’re taller than the lavatory is wide. Are there going to be more dirty diapers being changed in coach?

The sink is tiny, which seems cute at first until you try to use it. It’s not deep or wide enough to hold water in. Water comes out of the faucet, skips out the basin, and sprays everywhere. Everywhere includes all over your shirt of course, but also over the lavatory and the lav door. Since they aren’t going to increase the size of the lav American may wind up having to reduce the water pressure to a trickle.

American Airlines flight attendants, whom you can rarely get to serve a pre-departure beverage in first class, actually cleaned up the lavatories between passengers because they unavoidably began to resemble the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

Here by the way is the first class lavatory which I checked out on the way off the aircraft.

The lavatories are a real problem and something out of a Saturday Night Live skit parodying the airlines. I hope you don’t have to pee while flying American. My advice: Hold it.

Observations About Seat Selection

The overhead bins above rows 9 and 10 on the left side are used for equipment storage, there’s no bin space for customers. Fortunately all the other bins are huge.

However they make two of the three Main Cabin Extra rows potentially less desirable. Row 8 is the first row of coach, the first row of Main Cabin Extra, but since there’s no bulkhead there is storage under the first class seat ahead of it (row 6).

Since there’s no bulkhead and even in Main Cabin Extra the seats are close together, passengers in the first row of coach put their feet up against row 6, the last row of first. That makes row 6 less desirable for first class passengers.

The last row of coach sits right back up against the lavatory wall. Recline is limited for all seats, but even more so for the last seat.

Out of the extra legroom seats the exit rows seemed more spacious than the 3 rows at the front of the cabin.

But How is First Class?

‘Densifying’ economy isn’t all a plot to get you to fly first class. There’s less seat pitch in first class, too (37 inches versus 38 inches currently) and less recline as well (effectively four inches instead of six).

These are the ‘new US Airways first class seats’ that are also the base that they used to build international premium economy.

There’s a cup tray but it’s a single slide out tray shared between two passengers rather than each passenger getting a drink tray.

My Inflight Experience

The plane wasn’t full, coach departed 142 out of 156. I had an empty middle seat next to me which meant I could work, but I was disappointed, that empty middle made the flight experience much better… which wasn’t what I was looking for on the test run, we don’t usually get to fly with empty middles.

During boarding I heard passengers complaining “they announced it was a new plane but no TVs? really?”

There’s free internet temporarily, but it stopped working at several points during the flight. I don’t know whether coincidence or not but disconnecting and re-connecting seemed to do the trick a couple of times but not every time. Speed was disappointing.

The internet should be an improvement though it isn’t clear if just too many people are using it while it is free, American is unwilling to buy enough bandwidth, or there are kinks to be worked out. There was an employee from Viasat on the flight.

I don’t mind the legroom as such it is the proximity at chest and head level that is an issue. It makes me feel claustrophobic.

But having the empty seat next to me really mitigated that. The real challenge came trying to work and type because I had to keep my laptop at a 45 degree angle resting on my chest instead of the tray table, I thought when the passenger in front of me reclined that was the end of work entirely but I just angled the computer a bit more and rested it further up my chest.

We were a full hour in the air before they began inflight drink service, and they announced that everyone should remain seated while they’re doing it. Everyone got drinks and Biscoff cookies.

I plugged my laptop in and my phone, so I was fully charged throughout the flight. Power and (in theory) satellite internet are real pluses for this plane.

So How Was It Overall?

Ultimately there are some nice innovations with the seat. I like the tablet holder, and I like that it’s right next to the USB power port. I like the placement of the AC power port. I like gate-to-gate high speed wifi. I like the bright Boeing Sky interior and the oversized overhead bins. But it’s possible to have all of these things and reasonable seat pitch. It’s reasonable to have all these things and a lavatory that a person fits into.

How do I know? Because when I fly Southwest I don’t have to angle my laptop so that the base sits against my chest and the screen fits against the seat in front of me. I don’t have to type at a 45 degree angle, forcing a posture that’s bad for my back. I had a back ache starting just 45 minutes into the flight.

American says they aren’t going to fly these planes transatlantic, even though they’re capable of doing so. However they’re retrofitting all their 737s with this interior, and that’s the plane they fly Miami – Seattle which is just as long Westbound as an East Coast transatlantic flight is Eastbound.

Bottom-line I have two conclusions to offer:

  1. The new 30 inch pitch slimline seat that’s going to be American Airlines standard isn’t worse than the existing worst legacy US Airways seat they’ve been flying, and the wifi and power makes this net net somewhat better. (It’s a definite downgrade from legacy American Airlines coach, and there’s only 3 rows of extra legroom seats to escape regular economy which is a bummer.)

  2. But it’s worse than flying Southwest, so if you aren’t going to be seated in Main Cabin Extra you should avoid flying American if you can — same as today — and fly Southwest, JetBlue or even Alaska instead.

The new 737 MAX coach seat isn’t the worst thing in the sky as I had feared! But that’s only because there’s some pretty bad seats flying around today already.

The truth is that many legacy US Airways coach seats feel just as tight, my complaints about space are really complaints about economy — as it’s experienced today on American Airlines, United, and Delta — more than they are complaints about this economy. The lavatories though are absurd.

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. @Howard Miller

    Get to the point, man!
    Nobody reads your “walls” of text.
    It’s annoying.
    It’s called the “Comments” section not the “Novels” section.
    Get a blog!

  2. I can’t believe they only went with three MCE rows with 33″ pitch. That seems a lot crappier than what other legacy carriers offer as their extra legroom seats, and is worse than regular Jetblue seats. If you’re not going to reach top level status with American, it seems like an awful option.

    For us “semi-frequent” fliers who hit the lowest or second lowest levels of status, I can’t see any reason to not actively avoid this plane (and AA) as much as I actively avoid Spirit.

    Thanks for the review Gary, hopefully I will never need to use that lavatory.

  3. @Cassandra — Sorry, Cassandra, but these seats are not a “terrible product.” If you and the other Cassandras (sorry, I couldn’t exist) ran an airline, you’d quickly go bankrupt.

    Look, airlines like Frontier and Spirit do actually offer a “terrible product” and millions of people happily buy it. They are not interested in buying the “luxury” air travel that you are interested in. They want to get from Point A to Point B in an efficient manner as cheaply as they can. That’s what AA is competing against. Most travellers want cheap. Given this reality, AA knows that it has to cram lots and lots of people on its airplanes if it wants to make money and stay in business. I guarantee you their strategy will work. Whether you want to fly them or not.

  4. I would rather stick 4 rusty needles in my eyeballs than fly coach on an AA plane. This just means I’ll up the yardstick to 6 rusty needles.

  5. No, I don’t think I would go bankrupt, but I sure wouldn’t be raking it in the way these once-good airlines are doing now.
    I’m not so sure that millions of people “happily” buy the Spirit product, but I grant you they do indeed buy it. And we will have this configuration as long as we have no other choice.
    Then one sad day, we will have a catastrophic plane crash where it will be obvious just how unsafe these configurations are. And we will ride a pendulum swing back to safety measures.
    Till then I could live with a combination of “legacy” carriers and Ryanairs and Easyjets. Heaven knows I would be thrilled with European trains. I don’t like Spirit, feel meh about Frontier, but, since I live in neither IAH or PHX, I don’t have a choice. I am forced — and I mean forced — into the nasty little seats AA has come up with. Thank heaven I can choose Southwest if need be.
    And the same goes for the low cost airfares I hear about. Believe me I only hear about them; I am NOT offered them. When I lived in NYC I knew then that it was a huge benefit to be there and have available wowee-oh-wow-wow airfares. Everyone else had to pay to ‘start’ the flights to Europe or Asia. But that was then.
    Now this tightly controlled ‘public utility’ is run for the benefit of the airlines, not for the traveling public.
    So, I stay at home or go overseas. No place is worth suffering Spirit. Interesting isn’t it that buy America first has become buy anything-but American?
    By the way, I’m fascinated that you think ordinary ol’ decent flying is “luxury.” Sir, either you are a lobbyist, own scads of airline stock, or you have bought a real bill of goods if you think US airfares are cheap and that not-misery = luxury.
    I don’t believe a word you say, but I admit I’d rather have you working for me than against me.

  6. Good thoughtful review Gary. I think the new seats look like an improvement over the old ones. the extra padding, screens and 4 inches of recline are not needed in coach. everyone has a tablet or laptop. perhaps the new “design” is tailored more for tablet entertainment than laptop work. If you need to work on a plane, you should be getting paid enough to fly in biz class or extra leg room at least, anyway. Otherwise if you have to work in coach you should be more worried about finding a better job than typeing on your oversized laptop.

    My main complaint about the seats, just from your nice photos, is the head rest. Why make a thinline seat and then add the lump of a headrest pushing the passengers head forward toward the back of the seat in front. Maybe this is why you felt claustrophobic? For me, that headrest will hit me right across my shoulders and push my upper back into an agonizing C shape, if I can lean back into the lower part of the seat at all. It makes my back hurt to look at it. It would be nice if those are removable or could flip up out of the way somehow. But I know that they won’t because they are made for short, little people who don’t consider what their shortsighted design will do to discomfort taller passengers.
    Try sitting in those unpadded seats with a 1 inch protuberance across you shoulders for a couple of hours! Dimwitted design by short and short sighted dunces.

  7. If you’ve flown on a remodeled Delta A320 or new A321 your experience is no different, in fact it’s worse with the video boxes under the seat and the new bathrooms are equally tiny. The only difference with the major (sorry jetBlue and Alaska) choices is service. Two extra inches of legroom doesn’t make up for the operational mess that is SW. United is getting worse (thank you Scott) and American has stabilized, bit it’s hit and miss (can’t wait for the rest of the USAir metal to get redone). Delta still offers the best service, but at a price, compare them to the other 3, it’s not worth it anymore.

    Excited about the tablet holders, look for splashguards in the bathrooms!

  8. Used to fly primarily fly AA quite a bit, but have long since shifted to WN. Better schedule. Better seats. More consistent service. I’ve got a connection no matter where I go, so WN is as good as anybody on that front.

    And on my paid long haul, I’ve started transitioning to DL. Can’t believe it, but AA has done a great job at making themselves mediocre at just about anything they do.

  9. I didn’t know that was you! 11F checking in to say that it was a pleasure meeting you and I love your blog. Thanks again for the goodies!

  10. On the American Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft, we might have more legroom if American Airlines adds a seat belt in the “huge overhead bin.” I could then use the overhead bin to stretch out in comfort and use my seat and seat belt to secure my passenger baggage to my empty seat.

  11. I wanted to address the diaper-changing point. I fly once a year with my kids to visit our family, and when I take a baby I take the baby car seat too, because it’s safer, more comfortable, and allows me to focus on other things (or go to the bathroom while the baby is sleeping).
    As they make the seats closer and closer together a car seat no longer fits. Last time, as I flew on KLM, they told me that I couldn’t use it because the seat ahead couldn’t recline (the car seat was jammed in there), and that isn’t allowed. They were able to juggle people around, but if they hadn’t, what would we have done?
    I know no one likes traveling with babies but it happens anyway, and without car seats it’s not particularly safe and babies often are happier with their car seats, but how could one even fit in there?

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