Be Careful Which Aircraft You’re Flying on American: 21 Planes to Avoid

At the end of June American Airlines CEO Doug Parker told employees, “We’re not going through the whole fleet and adding a bunch of seats to airplanes or taking out larger bathrooms and putting in smaller ones.”

That wasn’t true. Not only is American Airlines taking delivery of new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft with more seats squeezed into the same air frame than ever before, they’re going through their existing fleet of Boeing 737-800 aircraft and “adding a bunch of seats” (from 160 currently up to 172) and “taking out larger bathrooms and putting in smaller ones” (in order to fit more seats).

They’re also reducing the amount of space between rows in coach, in Main Cabin Extra (extra legroom coach) and in first class.

American Airlines has taken delivery of 14 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft out of the 100 they have on order. You want to avoid flying American Airlines 737 MAXs if you can.

They’ve also completed modification on (4) of their existing 737-800 aircraft to offer a brutal experience to match:

  • Registration N979AN Ship 3DM
  • Registration N980AN Ship 3DN
  • Registration N982AN Ship 3DR
  • Registration N983AN Ship 3DS

And there are 3 more ‘in the shop’ being converted to torture tubes:

  • Registration N981AN Ship 3DP Expected to return this week
  • Registration N805NN Ship 3EE Expected to return this week
  • Registration N990AN Ship 3DV Expected to return next month

You can track where a given aircraft is flying using FlightAware and Flightradar24.

Here’s the Layout of Passenger Accommodations or LOPA for existing American Airlines Boeing 737-800s. When US Airways management took over at American these planes had 150 seats, and one of their first moves was to add seats. There are now 160 seats.

And here’s what it looks like once American reconfigures the planes to have 172 seats. This means less space in first class, less space in ‘Main Cabin Extra’ and 30 inches between seats in economy. It means smaller lavatories. It means streaming entertainment only (no screens). It also means bigger overhead bins.

The planes also get ViaSat satellite internet in place of Gogo’s air to ground system, though that’s
been happening on a separate, accelerated schedule.

If there’s one bright spot in the reconfiguration, it’s that the overhead bins will be larger. The reason the last passengers to board so often have to gate check bags is,

  • Planes are largely full, airlines have managed to sustain capacity discipline even as demand for air travel has grown.

  • Passengers carry on their bags instead of checking them in order to avoid checked bag fees.

  • Current American Airlines 737s have space to stow just 118 standard carry ons. Even when legacy US Airways management increased the number of seats on the plane from 150 to 160, the bins still held the same number of bags as before.

As they go to 172 passengers, they’re putting in bigger bings that let carry ons stow sideways, increasing bag capacity to one per passenger.

Here’s the thing. You can pretty well avoid an aircraft type like the 737 MAX, though aircraft swaps are always possible substituting one type for another is less common. You’ll see the scheduled aircraft type when booking a trip.

You’ll have to check the seat map for modified 737s. These are likely to be more prone to a swap though, and specific tails won’t be assigned to a flight until a couple of days prior to departure.

That means flying American Airlines 737s at this point is akin to playing passenger experience roulette.

Next year we’ll start seeing new similar interiors on Airbus narrowbodies.

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, 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. Gary – do you have a quota of how often you have to write about the AA 737MAX / 738 conversion?

    We get it – you don’t like the config. But you have long ago run out of interesting things to say about about this. A broken record does not get better with repeat playing.

    And bigger overhead bins, ViaSat internet, and no seatback screens are all huge improvements.

  2. I’m scheduled on a 738 from DCA to MIA in November. I was surprised to see that it started at row 1, and not row 3. Figured I’d been switched to a MAX, but it still shows as a 738. Funny thing is that other 738s on the schedule that day start at row 3. I’m surprised they’d have enough 738s reconfigured that they would show them on the schedule this far out.

  3. The other aspect that often goes unsaid is the miserly bathroom ratio. Only 2 bathrooms for 156 economy seats will mean ridiculously long bathroom lines. It was already bad when there were 144 economy seats.

    Many other airlines put 3 on longhaul 737s (like Alaska to Hawaii).

  4. Gary,

    Thanks for the repeat articles that remind us passengers of the inconsiderate decision made by AA to have their 737 and 738 aircraft reconfigured to near maximum discomfort for passengers.

    Those of us who previously and faithfully flew AA for years, sometimes need a reminder of those hideously reconfigured planes so that we will remember to book our future trips with a different airline.

    Job well done.

  5. Gary – I love the frequent AA misery updates, because they’re all correct. Although I think UA is the least caring and rudest in customer service, AA has the most miserable hard product. If AA ends up reneging on their seat pitch abuse, you’ll get a great deal of the credit for educating people about it and getting them to speak up to AA management.

  6. I flew Delta recently in economy and it was awful. I could barely move. If american is worse than that then the US should be ashamed. I don’t have these types of issues in other parts of the world when I fly even with some low cost carriers.

  7. I’ll repeat it for you — removing seat back entertainment is such a bad thing. Screaming kids can often be quelled with that. Hours of delays sitting at the gate sometimes that is the only thing to keep people and kids sane. “on your own device” crap is just that….crap. That whole streaming thing rarely ever works and when it does it works inside the continental US ONLY and ONLY well above 10,000 feet.

    Best thing to do — avoid AA if at all possible when there is a possibility of having one of these prison cells in the sky.

  8. Bill, I agree. I have been on an AA re-configured 737 and it felt roomier then the MD90’s and reconfigured A320s of DL. No not Doug or Robert here, but the DL product is not better, the service is also getting worse and lots of union talk at DL as employees aren’t the happy go lucky people that management is making them out to be.

    Still prefer DL or AA over other carriers with AK being a fav, but rarely get to fly them. The MAX at AA are no worse then other carriers reconfigured planes.

  9. Bob-so if you have more people and bigger bins is that more space for you?
    If you add 10 people how much bigger do the bins have to be to store the same amount per person?

  10. Legacy AA ordered 737s with seatback entertainment and the industry standard 31” space between seats, as if they were competing with JetBlue. DAA (DougieAA) is configuring the 737 and soon the A-320 series to compete with Spirit. That tells it all about the America West/US Airways’ management vision of AA’s “going for great.”

  11. A few airholes, and the new o/h bins will definately be more comfortable and spacious than the seat below. And lie-flat travel too!

  12. I’m with Frank
    Same lifetime plat avoid American like the plague
    Disgusting what Parker did to the company
    Horrific might be a better description

  13. Gary — I found your post very useful as a cautious reminder. Thanks for the updates.
    And i agree — I prefer the option of seat back video.
    As an aside, I also think planes not equipped with individual air vents is a terrible mistake. For some people 74-degrees is comfortable. I have friends who set their home A/C at 66.

  14. Just avoid flying the 737. Boeing single aisle airplanes have less seat width and shoulder room than most or maybe all of their competition.

  15. Flyers are as much to blame for these hideous aircraft configurations, with kiddie sized seats and lavatories, by not demanding better either by contacting their elected representatives, or cutting back on flying altogether.

    To be sure, there is a desperate lack of competition, with just three major network carriers domestically, and a corresponding three “alliances” internationally all able to to carve up whole cities, gateways, regions of the USA, or even entire countries for themselves with fortress hubs, or such overwhelming predominance, that one is left with few, if any, choices for some of the largest, and most lucrative, origin and destination markets in the world.

    With rare exception (LAX, DEN, MCO, or perhaps NYC and Chicago), the vast majority of USA cities are suffocating under the weight of a single airline having a stranglehold over the market.

    Take for example, Detroit, where just one airline, Delta, offers the scale and scope of operations to attract the most lucrative, higher yielding, corporate contracts for the largest corporations that require the type of comprehensive, global network that Delta offers.

    Ditto Minneapolis/St. Paul, Salt Lake City, or even (amazingly) Atlanta, where Southwest actually cut back operations after it joined the airline industry’s cartel/oligopoly club when it purchased AirTran.

    Back when we actually believed in the virtues of free markets and something called competition (what Deregulation was intended to create and further, NOT stifle), Atlanta had far more robust competition when Eastern Air Lines (whose demise was due in part to Frank Lorenzo’s greed, although that airline’s unions were hardly blameless, too) existed.

    Or even when AirTran (a small airline which was bought by ValuJet after that airline suffered from a prominent crash that it could not salvage its repuation for a string of maintenance related incidents that preceded the deadly crash in Miami shortly after take-off) existed, Atlanta was far more competitive than it is now under Southwest.

    Or how about Houston, San Francisco and Newark under United?

    American at DFW, Miami, Philadelphia, Washington/Reagan National, too.

    If one lives in these cities, or works for a company based in these cities, there’s NOT much of a choice, is there?

    Wanna fly to London/Heathrow?

    Except for a handful of cities (NYC, ATL, ORD, LAX, SFO, maybe BOS or SEA), it’s the BA/AA anti-trust immunized alliance – or it’s not much else.

    Wanna fly to Frankfurt, Germany?

    Except for even fewer cities than London/Heathrow (and nominally at that for those cities where there is – barely – another “option”), it’s the Lufthansa/United anti-trust immunized alliance – or it’s not much else.

    How about Paris and Amsterdam?

    Except for exceptionally few cities, it’s the Delta/Air France-KLM Group anti-trust immunized alliance – or it’s not much else.

    Tokyo, Japan?

    Yep, except for a handful of cities (LAX, and barely JFK), it’s the All Nippon Airways (ANA)/United Airlines anti-trust immunized alliance – or it’s not much else.

    Heck, even American, which has a hub at Chicago/O’Hare, is dangling by a thread for its Asia Pacific ops at that airport, and is either eliminating nonstop city pairs, or cutting back frequencies in that market.

    Delta, of course, as the loser in its previous attempts to forge an alliance with a Japanese based airline at either Narita, or Haneda after it was reopened to daytime intercontinental flights in recent years, is a shadow of its former self (from the operations it gained when it merged with Northwest 10 years ago) in terms of Japan after the two largest airlines for USA-Japan operations, ANA and United, forged their immunized alliance.

    The point is this: flyers were promised that competition killing mergers in the USA, and competition killing anti-trust immunized allances for international markets, would result in GREATER CHOICES, IMPROVED SERVICE and lower airfares.

    And yet, more often than not the exact opposite has resulted.

    Oh, sure, there’s some ultra low cost carriers in the mix – but their operations are either skewed towards the biggest markets where there’s enough traffic to offer the illusion of lower airfares, most of which are then laden with a mind numbing array of additional fees for all but the heartiest and most spartan flyers, and nearly all of which come with severe penalties, punishments and torturous seating configurations as the flogging one must subject themselves to for the illusion of a low fare…

    …or they’re confined to 2nd and 3rd tier markets that were abandoned after the orgy of competition killing mergers allowed the (too) few remaining airlines to carve up remaining cities and entire regions pretty much for themselves, where they offer infrequent, yet still monopolized, nonstop service to major leisure destinations or a handful of the nations largest cities that the Big 3 oligopolists plus Southwest deem too insignificant for their networks.

    American’s “torture tubes” (and those found on the desperately few remaining Faux “competing” airlines) are happening for a reason:

    Because, as flyers, we’re doing NOTHING (except whining) to stop this toxic, and increasingly abusive, airline industry cartel from implementing its patently obvious oligopolistic and predatory business models and pricing practices.

    Oh, sure, greedy and unscrupulous CEOs, are hardly blameless. But we all share the blame, too, for rolling/bending over and just taking the constant, and ever escalating abuse these CEO’s love saying (without ever admitting their obvious self-serving greed) we, as flyers, brought upon ourselves.

    Want better planes? Demand that REAL, AND MEANINGFUL, COMPETITION be brought back to our skies.

    End fortress hubs. Force divestiture of gates, slots, terminal facilities across the country. Terminate the abusive, government sanctioned collusion in international markets – because these are the things that are largely responsible for the abusive “torture tubes” and the other flying abominations like ten abreast Boeing 777s that are the exact outcomes and symptoms one would expect to see in industries that are so desperately lacking in competition it literally now hurts!

    Let’s make COMPETITION great again!*

    *until recently, we used to think competition was a GOOD THING instead of being conned into believing otherwise in recent years…just sayin’

  16. @gary – rather than wasting time trying to figure out which planes to avoid it’s must quicker and easier to just avoid AA all together

  17. @Robert – I agree 100% and haven’t flown AA since Spring, 2014 (or shortly after Dougie P and his crew took over and began destroying that formerly great airline).

    Alas, with JetBlue now on a rapid trajectory towards destination awful, and Alaska post (competiton killing) Virgin America acquisition, not far behind in its product degradation business “plan”, it’s slim pickings when all that’s left is trying to figure out who sucks the least. 🙁

  18. Your article show that 66 of these AA planes have seat back entertainment. How can we know which planes these are?

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