American Airlines Backs Off 29 Inch Pitch Economy, But It’s Not All Good News

At the end of April I broke that American was looking to add a bunch of seats to its new Boeing 737s.

A few days later it was revealed that the plan involved reducing seat pitch (the distance from seat back to seat back) in 3 rows of economy from 31 inches to 29 inches, shrinking the rest of coach from 31 inches to 30 inches, and even smaller lavatories than are offered today.


Current American Airlines Boeing 737-800 Economy Cabin

American, in other words, would offer some coach seats on this aircraft virtually indistinguishable from Spirit Airlines.

Not to worry, we were told, because they’d make up for reduced legroom with less comfortable seats.

More seats mean a lower cost per seat, and the opportunity to sell more tickets. It’s a strategy for giving up on earning any sort of revenue premium for their product.

In contrast, Southwest and jetBlue still offer more legroom. They do not ban customers on the lowest fares from making changes or bringing on their rollaboard bags. And Southwest doesn’t even charge for bags (for now). Customers do have a choice, and they need to be educated about that choice.


And You Didn’t Think it Could Get Worse Than Legacy US Airways Aircraft

Apparently there’s a limit to how bad the economy experience can get on American Airlines because they’ve announced a slight modification to the plan for their Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

Instead of 3 rows with as little as 29 inches from seat back to seat back, all economy rows will have 30 inches. But they’re not going to take out seats to get there, they’re going to eliminate a row of Main Cabin Extra. Extra legroom seats at the front of the aircraft have an extra 3 inches of legroom, usually, so by distributing one row’s extra legroom to the three rows squeezed the most they can avoid the headline about offering less legroom than anyone else.

Make no mistake, these will still me less comfortable aircraft than you’re used to with more seats than before.

  • 30 inches from seat back to seat back is less than the standard 31 inches today

  • Slimline seats (less padding) are uncomfortable enough on a 2 hour flight, these planes are the mainstay of the airline’s domestic fleet designed for flying long distances like cross country and Hawaii

  • There will not be any seat back entertainment, which isn’t so important to me but matters to many readers.


Seatback TVs are Going Away, Just Like Legroom

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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  1. Hahaha, AA is so sad. Who wants to fly them anymore?
    AA will soon put seats on a pallet and transport passengers in the cargo hold.

  2. I will never book a flight over 1.5 hours on these planes if the only choice is economy. Mr. Parker congratulations on American Airlines becoming your newest victim.

  3. Man, if I didn’t live in dallas.

    Dougie is going to run this thing into the ground. He doesn’t know how to run a big mainline carrier, so he’s going to run AA down to the size and scope of America West. What a sad story for shareholders and customers when the day is done.

  4. For the first time since 2009, I flew AA this past weekend . . . and was reminded of why I hadn’t flown AS since 2009.

  5. 30 x 17 slimline seats are a nightmare. I will avoid AA even more than I do now- though I suspect that I and the other readers of this blog are not the average consumer and most people won’t even know the difference as to what they are buying until they sit their asses down on the plane. My question is how soon will they start phasing in these planes and do they have plans to also further shrink seat pitch on larger aircraft/international flights?

  6. Want more legroom? Pay for it DUH ..
    People always want the lowest price, that’s why legacy airlines have to compete with low cost airlines these days. If you like Southwest or JetBlue better, then go with them. If not, shut up or open up your wallet.

  7. I’m open to a sub-main cabin space in the back that’s 29 inch pitch that is basic economy priced. Bring it on.

    But AA is going to get themselves in position per this trial balloon where they only have 28 seats with more pitch per 738 to buy (not including the exit rows, which not everyone can use), and 12 of those are going to go to elites in MCE who select those seats when they buy.

    So, back down to the 16 seats up front and back to the binary choice: Spirit in the back or AA First in the front.

    Again, Parker is running this like it’s America West, and he’s going to run it ’till it looks like CACTUS. That’s as much as he seems to be able to manage. Great job, AA.

  8. Ah… the US Airways cancer continues to spread.

    Management gave fliers back an inch and took away a row of MCE to make that happen. And that was a row of MCE I would easily pay for if Business was full.

    And to all of the people posting “If you want more legroom, pay for it…” – what makes you think that this despicable management team will stop their madness with the Economy section? They have decimated the domestic First/Business cabins and I have no doubt that they’re not done yet. This is the same group that ALLEGEDLY removed power ports from US Airways cabins to save on weight, only to have to reinstall them after the merger since IFE will be going away. Great foresight.

    Daddy, how does one destroy the world’s largest airline? By making it the world’s largest ULCC also.

  9. So true. I don’t even bother wasting time looking at AA flights anymore. Their contempt for passengers is so obvious it’s laughable.

    Of course, with only four large airlines now controlling more than 80% of the domestic market; barriers to entry so high that there’s little chance of any meaningful competition emerging anytime soon; and zero chance of any consumer/passenger oriented regulatory intervention until 2021 at the earliest, this is exactly what one would expect to see from companies that exist in an oligopoly.

    We live in an increasingly oligarchical country, so is it any wonder that our airlines are now government sanctioned oligopolies that behave EXACTLY as the textbook cases say they do under these circumstances.

    Only when the public demands more value for their money and stops believing the lies that the “race to the bottom” is their fault, will this change.

    Alas, the hope that people will stop believing these lies seems to becoming dimmer at the moment.

    Meanwhile, the con artists behind these neverending product degradations are laughing all the way to the bank with each increase of yearly stock buyback authorizations.

    An amazing transfer of wealth is underway, and the airlines are but one of the vehicles in which this is happening.

    Less is NOT more…never has been, and never will be…and yet, a gullible public seems to go along without questioning why they’re nearly always paying more, and nearly always getting less.

    Incredibly, some defend this…incredibly…defies logic…and yet it just goes on unabated…

  10. @ Howard Miller — with all due respect, your manifesto does not reflect the conditions that exist in the real world. US airline service is pretty cheap. Admittedly, those cheap fares don’t buy you much comfort, but you can certainly pay more for more comfort. I’m sorry, but you’re not going to get Ritz Carlton service and comfort at Motel 6 prices.

    BTW, with the great oligopoly you speak of, US airlines only enjoy about 10% margins. Far less than most industries. If you seized all those profits (and you seem like the kind of person who would like to), I don’t think we’d get a world of utopian airline service. People would have to be willing to pay substantially more for better service. We’ve now got several decades of deregulation where it’s been well established that people prefer less service and lower prices for their air travel needs.

  11. Actually, the problem is that we are now seeing the excesses that are only possible when little if any meaningful competition exists: companies become greedy and arrogant because they know consumer choices are limited, and they know can get away with it.

    So what history has proven over and over again in these circumstances is that companies in oligopolies behave as American, United and Delta are now doing: they charge Ritz Carlton prices but only want to offer a Motel 6 like product.

    The difference now is a gullible public who buys into the lies that the slick marketing departments and con artists are cramming down everyone’s throats that passengers are to blame for jamming ridiculously small seats into ridiculously small rows on airplanes where the bathrooms are so small an average sized adult can barely fit, and the sinks are so small and narrow they’re almost as small and narrow as an iphone 7plus.

    Ridiculous.

    Keep drinking the Kool-Aid…it won’t be long before the airlines find themselves deservedly re-regulated with actions like this.

    It’s one thing to make money by offering a true value proposition in a competitive market. It’s quite another when one engages in the kind of arrogance, abuse and deceit that the airlines are attempting to get away with currently because there’s no current meaningful competition.

    Soon enough the pendulum will swing the other way; passengers will realize they’re being bamboozled by the con artists who are exploiting the lack of competition in the airline industry; and the political climate will change wherein this constant abuse will need to be addressed through public policy changes.

    It’s only a matter of time.

  12. Someone here asked for education so here it is:

    1) Doug Parker built mediocre America West into the worlds largest airline. If AA was so great, they wouldn’t have needed Doug to bail them out of bankruptcy.

    2) We wouldn’t be in this low cost carrier mindset if people weren’t so cheap. Airlines have stripped away at service and comfort because that is what the American public has demanded. Want to go back to 1980s comfort and service? You’ll have to pay for it. Don’t believe me? Do some research on air fares during your beloved “Golden Age”. You may be surprised at what that used to cost.

    All you people do is complain and complain again. Shut up. Suck it up. This is EXACTLY what you asked for. And next time you decide to openly complain about airlines, maybe you should do some fact checking first.

  13. @Nick American didn’t “need” LUS to “bail them out of bankruptcy”

    (1) LUS was the high bidder, willing to overpay for AA, and got unions on his side by promising everyone raises — this turned out to work out alright because fuel prices dropped significantly shortly after the merger.

    (2) The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (US Federal Gov’t) pressured the creditors committee to take the deal as an alternative to American terminating pensions in bankruptcy as Delta and United had done.

  14. @ Gary Leff — If we’re fact correcting, the canard that Parker “overpaid” for AA (a line you like to repeat) merits a pinocchio. The combined airlines were doing just fine before fuel prices dropped; in the second quarter of 2014 — before oil prices tumbled — they made $864 million — $350 million more than the year before! The sudden collapse of oil later that year added a short term windfall, but once airfares adjusted to the new level of fuel cost, AA has continued to be an extremely profitable company. I would also note that, during this time, Parker used these profits to buyback 30% of the outstanding shares. I think this explains why no one else goes around today claiming Parker overpaid for AA.

  15. @iahphx – in retrospect he didn’t overpay because of the massive drop in fuel prices that couldn’t have been forecast. At the time it certainly looked like he did. Giving up 72% of US Airways stock made it a pricey deal given uneven and uncertain modest profits at that point.

    As I say the deal worked out very well, it was a major indirect commodities bet that went right.

  16. @TM —> You wrote, “Want more legroom? Pay for it DUH …
    People always want the lowest price, that’s why legacy airlines have to compete with low cost airlines these days. If you like Southwest or JetBlue better, then go with them. If not, shut up or open up your wallet.”

    This ignores several factors.

    1) It’s one’s First Amendment right to [speak out and] bitch. Get used to it. No one is, nor are they going to, “shut up.”

    2) Your comment *presumes* that the US legacy carriers (USL3) are competing with the “low cost airlines” — traditionally known as “LCC’s.” They are NOT! “Basic Economy” is aimed at competing at the Ultra-Low Cost Carriers (ULLC’s): Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier. In their “race to the bottom,” they are perversely elevating the mid-tier airlines (Alaska/Virgin America, JetBlue, Hawaiian, and — to a certain extent — Southwest) to the top. More comfortable seats. In most cases, better food (except, obviously, Southwest — which they make up for with no change fees and no fees for checked bags).

    Additionally, and more importantly, the flights on the mid-tier carriers OFTEN COST LESS than on the USL3! So it’s not a matter of *either* flying AS/VX, WN and/or B6, “or open your wallet.” Rather, it’s “fly [those] AND SAVE!”

  17. Regardless of your opinion on whether or not AA needed help from Parker, or whether LUS overpaid, to claim that he is running AA into the ground couldn’t be further from the truth. While I don’t necessarily like the guy, I have to admit that he built America West into a profitable airline capable of taking over a larger airline…TWICE. If it weren’t for LUS taking over, how can you possibly attempt to claim where AA would be today? Do you have a magic crystal ball that can tell you AA would be just fine? I don’t understand all your negative comments. Parker is doing exactly what is being asked of him by stockholders and consumers. You should be thankful. The only group that has any leg to stand on in complaining would be the employees of the airline who are battling broken promises. Unless you’re an employee, back off and quit bullying AA.

  18. Nick? No offense, but you’re way off base here. The only people who should be thankful are the shareholders (and this presumes that the stock value is up, something I haven’t checked). Yes, employees battling broken promises have every right to be ANGRY and to protest. But when was the last time you flew AA? I flew on AA Wednesday, June 7, 2017 (one week ago today), and again on Sunday, the 11th (three days ago). Trust me: the four segments pretty much SUCKED, and I look forward (thankfully and happily) to flying the AS/VX, WN, and B6 “group” once again . . . .

  19. @TM

    I also have to disagree with you to a certain extent. While from a financial perspective you can separate the Legacy, Mid-Tier and Ultra-Low Cost carriers, the vast majority of consumers do not. They very first thing they look at when selecting an airline is the price of the ticket. They do not factor in the free-bees (with the exception of WN due to their free checked bag policy…I don’t agree with this because often you can get a cheaper fare on a Legacy carrier even with the checked bag fee).

    The fact that we are down to such few carriers in the USA means that those airline designations are getting blurred. The big guys have come to realize they have to compete with everyone and are trying to create different products to match the needs of those respective consumers. Basic Economy is a product aimed at matching ULCC service, but there are other products created aimed at appealing to mid-tier consumers.

    The bottom line is that I agree with the statement “don’t like it, shut up or pay up”. The airlines are not going to respond to your bitching. They will, however, respond to you flying on competing carriers. Given the load factors American has had tells me that people are okay when the product offered. So quit your bitching.

  20. @Jason

    Then don’t fly AA. It’s pretty simple. But can I ask why you gave them another chance? Why did you choose them this go around over previous flights?

    Just an FYI I travel on all airlines except Spirit and Hawaiian quite regularly. I don’t like Spirits product so I choose not to fly them regardless of how great their ticket price is. I flew 8 times in the past month; 3 on AA and 5 on WN. I am not a customer of status on either and am quite happy with my experience on both, though if given a choice I would probably pick AA because I like having a seat assignment vs open seating.

  21. @Nick —> I don’t (fly AA). I also don’t fly DL or UA. It’s that simple¹. (I used to be a UA regular, but those days are over.)

    In re: my recent AA flight (SFO-DFW-MSY, round-trip). As I mentioned it was the first time since 2009. I picked AA for one reason, and one reason only — to take advantage of the 1.6¢ return from Citi TYP *prior* to its devaluation on June 23rd. That is, I used Citi ThankYou points to pay for the ticket at a rate of 1.6¢/point. In that regard, the flight was free.

    What went wrong: 1) As an Alaska Airlines MVP Gold elite, I should receive a free upgrade to Main Cabin Extra. As an Alaska Airlines MVP elite, my wife should receive that upgrade at a 50% discount, BUT — if traveling with me on the same reservation — she also should receive a free upgrade. Instead, I had to pay over $300 for what I should have received free of charge.

    2) As an MVP Gold elite, I should receive two free checked bags. My wife, as an MVP elite, should receive one, but when traveling with me on the same reservation, she should also receive two free checked bags. On the outbound leg (SFO-DFW-MSY), we checked two bags with no problem. On the return leg, however, we checked four and I had to pay $70.

    [NOTE: In talking with service reps at both AS and AA, everyone agrees I should not have been charged for any of this, and — hopefully — AA is currently processing a refund.]

    3) On the return leg, a mechanical problem would have caused us to miss our connecting flight at DFW. Though we could have been put up overnight, my wife is a criminal defense attorney who had court the next morning and absolutely positively had to be there. On the plus side, we got re-booked through LAX, then onto SFO. On the negative side, we traded the MD-80 (MSY-DFW) + A321 (DFW-SFO) — the same planes we flew out on, in reverse — for a 737 and an Embraer 175. On the 737, we lost the Exit Row seats, were seated separately and got middle seats — one on the very last row of the plane; on the E175, although the boarding passes we were given in New Orleans had us sitting together, the gate agent at LAX split us up . . .

    [NOTE: I understand last minute re-booking will certainly cause seat changes, but a) the ticket agent should have refunded the up-charge right then, or at least told me how to get the charge reimbursed, and b) I have no clue why the we should have been separated on the 175. Additionally, the agent should have known *not* to charge me for the luggage.]

    Finally, the slimline seats just flat-out SUCK!

    /\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

    In terms of frequency of flights, I’ve taken 23 flights since January 1, 2017, and have another 24 booked through the end of year. To date, I’ve flown AA (4 times) and VX (19). The other 19 are on AS (4), B6 (1), EK (2), IB (6), and VX (11).

    _______________
    ¹ Or, at least I try not to. I haven’t flown DL since 2004. I flew UA in 2016 — also to New Orleans — because it was then the only non-stop available at a convenient time. (Since then, WN re-vamped their schedule and is a much better AND less expensive option.)

  22. @Jason

    So…you booked a free ticket on American, had to pay ancillary fees by mistake, experienced a delay due to maintenance and had to be rerouted, resulting in not being able to sit together for flights you didn’t even pay for (though you were still home the day you were supposed to be home), and AA and AS are both apologizing for the errors and trying to make things right for you. Also, somehow, you were able to sit in the new slimline seats that AA is installing on their new 737MAX planes, which haven’t even come out yet? (According to several news stories the new seats are not the same as you might find on other airlines. And doesn’t AS have slimline seats on most of their planes now? I know the last time I flew AS last month I was sitting in one.)

    Well boo-hoo, let me throw you a pity party. If you are that entitled that you demand a perfect experience, perhaps you should buy your own plane. Because I’m sure with your own plane you can ensure that you will never experience any mechanical problems, weather, ATC delays, or unexpected charges (whether legitimate or not).

    Ironically, I have experienced similar issues with Alaska Airlines, which was my go to for many years. I still like their product and feel they are a great airline despite those particular challenges I faced. Similarly I have experienced bad customer service at American, one particular vacation had to be cancelled altogether due to one mechanical problem after another and I didn’t receive any compensation other than the flights. I still fly American because often they are the best value. Your reason for choosing to fly AA only validates my point that people do choose to fly a particular airline primarily because of $$$, in your case a virtually free flight.

    In all seriousness, I am sorry that you had that bad experience, but I do not see how AA is alone is failing to deliver on expectations. If you follow airline news, which it seems you do, the evidence is clear that every airline has their share of horror stories; it isn’t fair to call out one company over another when each person has a different experience.

    Finally, this article painted AA in a bad light. I don’t understand where the negativity is coming from. AA received a lot of negative feedback about the reduction in seat pitch, so they listened to their customers and gave them exactly what they wanted. While I have never been responsible for finding additional legroom on a plane I can only imagine the decision was made to 1) give the customers what they want while 2) maintaining or increasing revenues. I applaud AA for their decision and hopefully they continue to listen to their customers to improve their product.

  23. @Nick —> No offense, screw the “pity party.” I gave AA a chance. It was a revenue ticket as far as AA was concerned. The ticket just didn’t cost me anything as I covered the charge via points. What difference does that make? They still screwed us over. And — what? — you think I should look forward to letting them do it again?

    Yes, IF they refund the charges, that’s definitely a plus for their Customer Service. But keep in mind they are merely correcting a mistake that shouldn’t have been made in the first place: our tickets/boarding passes/documents clearly showed our AS Mileage Plan numbers *and* status. And so far, it’s taken three phone calls and over two hours to set things in motion.

    As for the seats, perhaps they weren’t “slimline” seats and if not, that’s actually worse not better. That means their “regular” seats are *that* uncomfortable, and will only be getting worse once they take out a row of MCE and install the “new” (and even more uncomfortable) seats. That certainly makes me want to fly them again.

    As for validating you point, that “people do choose to fly a particular airline primarily because of $$$, in your case a virtually free flight,” it can be interpreted in several ways. You are quite right that I took this flight because it was “virtually free.” (It should have bene completely free, but that’s besides the point at the moment.) However, if I actually had to pay cash for it . . . the flight on AA would have been $1024 for the two of us, plus [perhaps] fees for checking a total of 7 suitcases — three there, four back. Southwest, on the other hand, for a similar (one-stop) itinerary, would have cost me $945 with NO baggage fees and more comfortable seats. (Since we didn’t eat/pay for any food on board, that’s a wash.) No doubt I would have taken the flights on Southwest. AND, if I had to purchase the tickets — cash or points — after June 23rd (and the devaluation re: AA), it wouldn’t have been on AA. The *only* reason was to take advantage of the extra value PRE-devaluation.

    C’est la vie.

  24. Don’t fly AA/DL/UA (pick one or all you claim to hate).

    Sadly not always an option. CLT – PHL options:
    – AA: many flights per day at convenient times across the day.
    – Frontier: one daily mid day, plus a crappy experience at a much lower cost, plus no back-up in case of operational problems
    – all others: no non-stops, making flight of 1hr15 a 4-6 hour flight (connect via ATL, MDW, IAD, PIT, CHO, GSA, LGA, NEW)

    CLT – ORD options:
    – AA: many flights per day at convenient times across the day.
    – UA: a few flights per day, some at convenient times, but most operated by unreliable and crappy plane operating Mesa, Republic, etc. as United Express (CRJ9, CRJ2, etc.)
    – All others: no non-stops, making flight of 1hr30 a 4 to 6 hour flight (connect via ATL, IAD, BOS, etc.)

    I can share more examples, but the point is that it is nice to think you have options, but very often the “home-base” airline simply offers the best (or only!) selection, for which you pay the price. I can fly CLT to NY on a variety of airlines, and ticket prices start at around $200. If I want to to PHL, a slightly shorter flight, I can fly once a day on Frontier for around $200. Fly with a stop-over for between $350 – $600, or fly AA, where my non-stop ticket this week was $827. Granted, that was booked a week before flying, but still…

    In the end, the other thing to consider is corporate policies. Many companies we work with have “preferred airline agreements” and they “make” you fly certain airlines, or expressly outlaw others.

    So it isn’t always as black and white as “you have a choice” because depending on where you travel from and to, and what your company policy and bank account allow, you may not have that much of a choice at all.

  25. @Nick —> Fair is fair, and in the “spirit” of fairness, let me report that a) American Airlines has processed my refunds — and done so rather quickly — to the tune of $378.36; and b) because this indeed *was* a revenue ticket as far as AA (and AS) were concerned, my AS account was just credited with 5,972 miles (and my wife received 3,695).

    BTW, had I not been able to credit the mileage from this “free” AA flight to AS (or another carrier which I fly frequently), I would have chosen a different airline initially.

  26. @Jason

    I am really happy to hear that, especially if you are satisfied with the recovery. I know your situation sucked, but I feel like every company (not just airlines) should have a chance to make things right when something goes wrong. And who knows? If some day you give AA a try again, hopefully your experience will be great and you’ll see why I like them.

    @CLTflyer

    So you might get upset at an airline for their product because your company makes you fly them? That would be misdirected anger. Maybe you should work to have your company change who they use as a preferred airline. Don’t fault an airline for your employers’ corporate alliances.

    While it’s true options are sometimes limited, you always have a choice. If you’re so hung up on avoiding American, for example, drive 4 hours to ATL and fly Delta. If you don’t feel you should have to drive, you should talk to the millions of people in the US who aren’t lucky enough to have a major airport in their back yard. For many, you have to drive several hours just to be able to fly.

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