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:
- 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.)
- 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.