FIRST LOOK: What American’s New Tightest Ever Coach Seats Are Really Like

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,
but:

  • 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.

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. My personal pitch (length from back to knee cap) is 30 inches, maybe a bit more. So 30 inches it tight for me.

  2. In the pictures they look uncomfortably tight. In fact, the shoulder height space looks like it does not benefit from the lack of video screen. I have also noticed on this type of seat, it feels like the seat itself, the part that goes under the butt and thighs, is shorter than old style seats and for me, less comfortable because of the lack of support. I have to wonder if you have heard the details on recently announced plans to refit the whole 737 and 321 fleets with similar seats and removing setback video along with a corresponding increase in density.

  3. You say you you don’t know how it will feel when its not in a hotel conference room. While, you must have never flown Spirit, Allegiant or Frontier. It will feel pretty much, exactly the same.

  4. @Richard – I don’t think you can say these will feel exactly the same as other airlines who are flying different seats and with less space between the seats.

  5. As American Airlines is “shrinking the lavatories,” will people over 5 feet 11 inches tall fit inside the loo to take a poop?

  6. Looks like there’s effectively no storage either. Doesn’t look like you can put anything in the seatback pocket or if you do you crowd yourself even further. That’s going to be impractical considering that unless you’re a contortionist it’s unlikely that you can reach your underseat bag either.

    This is going to be all sorts of bad if they ever have to evacuate one of these fast.

  7. These seat types are already on some 737-8’s. So this will “feel” like a loss of space. 30” is tight. While the extra width is appreciated, the airframe width isn’t changing so I don’t see much of an enhancement here. Seems like an enormous expense to swap out a fleet of seats on several hundred aircrafts for an extra row or 2. Taking out a row of MCE is disappointing – I guess if nobody is buying them, it’s just an elite benefit and we know how D. Parker feels about elites.

  8. Did you say shrink the lavatory? How? I’m a woman who is only 5’2″, of normal weight and I can barely turn around in the lav now. I have no idea how a 5’6″ 170 pound woman (which is a pretty typical American woman) can fit, let alone a 6′ man.

  9. Shrink the lavatories? How the hell are they gonna do that?
    Flew 3 AA flights today(easiest routing available from my tiny airport). They all ran on time to early.
    The seats however were old, worn and crammed in very tight. No way these things were 31″.
    I missed Delta.

  10. @greg

    I’m assuming they’re rationalizing the seats to simplify fleet management. If they need to swap equipment this minimizes the disruption when they don’t have to reassign seats that no longer exist or vice versa in the new plane.

  11. They promote less recline as a good thing – to me that is bad as 4″ recline is barely much to begin with and this is telling that the space is so tight to the point they have to reduce recline.

    Guess we will have less flexibility in making ourselves comfortable – I feel sorry for those who get stuck flying red eye on those planes.

  12. A positive note is these have got to feel more spacious than the 30″ pitch on the LAA A319 with video screens. Those have AVOD and 30″ of pitch. It definitely feels tight on those!

  13. The obvious answer is to vote with your feet. Stop flying American, or any airline which is putting customer comfort down at the bottom of the list. Profit above everything? Don’t contribute to that profit. As a paying customer, you’re entitled to a reasonable amount of comfort, and if not getting it, don’t fly that airline.

  14. Flew one American flight, in first mind you, in the last 10 years. That one experience made me never even consider them again. Horrible experience.

    Jet blue, Southwest, heck even United are world’s apart from American. Just not a customer friendly airline at all.

  15. How significant is one more row?
    When Southwest added a row and went from 137 to 143 seats it represented a 4.4% capacity increase.
    If a plane has approx. 6 departures it’s an opportunity to sell another 36 tickets each day..
    Is a swap-out of seats worth it? That’s a pretty handsome return on investment in my view.

  16. I wonder if the President of AA can take those flights and stay on those seat for 10 flights and sit with varying size of people, do you think he will survived and say, ‘I made the right decision shrinking it’, I dare!!!!

  17. Doug Parker strikes again. The 737 is an incredibly uncomfortable aircraft. I dread any rows other than exit rows. And in re: to the comment about elites flying in MCE. That doesn’t always happen when traveling for work, especially on a Monday morning or a Thurs/Friday afternoon flight. And good luck opening a laptop on that tray table.

  18. Hilarious they would have a photo oportunity to show off their new backboard seating. I may book one flight again now that they bribed me with Gold status to come back since they seat will be tolerable, only if it’s cheaper or the same price as Southwest on the route, and there’s no Virgin Alaska service possible within driving distance. United offered the same bribe last year and I flew exactly one flight to get the seat only. How’s that working out for you planewreckers?

  19. “Currently the tightest coach seats from major US airlines is 31 inches.”

    Sorry Gary you’re late. United’s slimline (Recaro) retrofits took domestic regular Economy (E-) down to 30″ pitch a couple of years ago.

    Though interestingly UA’s 787-9 pitch, even with slim(ish)-line seats is still 32″ and very manageable legroom (not shoulder) wise. I sat in one once for a few minutes just as you did in that AA layout though mine was on a plane.

  20. @Gary, that seat looks INCREDIBLY claustrophobic and uncomfortable in a conference room . . . on a plane, I can only imagine that seat will be that much worse! I can’t imagine how it’s going to feel when that kid in the next row kicks the seat, but I can certainly imagine feeling my seat-back being pulled on whenever the individual behind me needs to get up or even sit down!

    Doug Parker, read my lips: No way am I flying in those seats! I grew up flying AA — starting when they were flying piston-driven DC-6s and -7s! I hadn’t flown them, for various reasons, since 2009 until this year, when I used Citi TYPoints (pre-devaluation) to fly SFO-DFW-MSY r/t (I *really* dislike MD-80s), and then got re-booked on a E-175 when AS cancelled a flight (and the 175’s AS flies are SO much better!). Five flights this year on AA reminded me why I stopped, and things have only gotten worse over the past either years. Now, I’m going to hate their 737s? There is NO WAY I am flying AA (and I feel sorry for those who do).

  21. P.S. I just read part of this article to my wife (“Less seat padding, no video screens, and less recline are the arguments American is using for why this won’t be a worse experience.”) Her comment: “Sounds like Trump’s press secretary.”

  22. So in the article you state that the seat will have an extra half inch of width. Does this mean it will truly be 17.7″ since the existing width on the 737-800 is 17.2″. If every seat gets an extra 0.5″ inches, and there are 6 seats across, this will take 3″ for the seat width expansion. Which means not only will they loose room between the window and window seat, but also the aisle will be narrower. Is their FAA stipulation on the minimum width for the aisle.

    The Embraer 170, 175 and 190 are still a better option with a seat width of 18.0″ to 18.5″, and having a 2×2 configuration. Wish they had more flights in these smaller jets as they are way more comfortable.

    So did they state what the new width will be. Is it 17.5″ instead of 17″. I’m still a fan of the embraer 170-175 with a seat width of 18.5″. I will

  23. I detest air travel. Id rather stay home. No one enjoys being squeezed and confined and being too close to other passengers. From the airport to the plane the experience is awful – walking cargo given no humane considerations. I do remember when it was exciting and enjoyable to travel by air.

  24. I detest air travel. Id rather stay home. No one enjoys being squeezed and confined and being too close to other passengers. From the airport to the plane the experience is awful – “walking cargo” given no humane considerations. I do remember when it was exciting and enjoyable to travel by air.

  25. Yet another reason I will not fly with this airline. I travel a lot for business and the worst part of my job is dealing with the airlines. Personally I thought the pictures showed someone that would be miserable. I completely understand why people are grumpy and incidents of bad behavior are up. I am six foot and 220 lbs. Because of the miserable seating I got off a flight three years ago with numbness in my left hand. Try being my size sitting next to two people larger than me. I hate federal regulations but I would advocate for change. Unfortunately those that can make change do not expirence the misery inflicted on us by the airlines.

  26. The shoulder / face pitch is the problem on these. It makes you claustrophobic because you’re staring at something closer even if, eyes closed, it’s more comfortable.

  27. Yeah, those pics certainly did NOT assuage any fears about how horrible they’d be to sit in for a short hop like LGA-BOS/DCA were they ever to be deployed on either of those one hour (or less) shuttle routes (which they won’t) — let alone ANY other route where flights take longer than one hour.

    I don’t even bother looking at ANY flights, regardless of fare shown, for American anymore for myself or my partner, and booked only one flight for family who live in Charlotte, NC (where AA has approx 93% share) that visited over the summer, with the other, and “better” flight for their outbound segment being on United out of the many dozens of flights booked (on many airlines intentionally NOT AA) for myself or others in the past year.

    Imagine that…United was actually “better” than another airline! I guess miracles DO happen every once in a while…

    Anyhow, with the rare exception of a situation where AA has a virtual monopoly in a city (such as Charlotte), AA is on the same “Never, ever fly list” along with the one with the dubious safety record (that I send news reports of their frequent incidents to loved ones who live near their small town airports as a reminder/warning of why that airline should NEVER be flown), or its two other “peers”, or Vueling (in Europe), who my 5’4″ partner flew once on a code-share flight booked with British Airways as a “BA” flight from Berlin to Barcelona, and told me afterwards, NEVER, EVER book me on them again (yeah, that airline was THAT bad).

    …and yeah, even BEFORE these atrocious “new & improved” seats on AA’s 737s (where only the “new” part is truthful) fly their first flights, AA, like Vueling, and the others too horrible to mention by name, was already a charter member of the too awful to even consider flying club…

    …with these latest, and further debasements, AA just continues to fade into oblivion and has no relevance whatsoever anymore. Perhaps this partly explains why AA is paring back its trans-Atlantic offerings from JFK Airport now, and reverting to the US Airways of yore where over time Philadelphia becomes its European gateway/hub, and a steady, if gradual retreat from JFK renders AA an “also ran” behind Delta, United and Jetblue in NYC.

    Truth is, as these new and atrocious seats make clear, AA’s product sucks.

    Apart from the many comments posted here and elsewhere by road warriors about how horrible AA’s “first class” is, and how their once great frequent flier program is rapidly deteriorating from first to worst (among AA’s many other sins) when United is actually “better”, that’s really all one needs to know to understand just how exceptionally bad AA has become.

    Doug Parker is taller and broader (width across his chest/torso from shoulder to shoulder, NOT his gut or butt — or “fluffy”) than most adult males. Some might even say quite a bit taller than the average male. The day I see him flying in disguise, under an assumed name “Undercover Boss” style, stuck in these atrocious seats, and being treated the same way as everyone else for 25 or so flights of varying lengths from 90 mins to six or seven hours, and then still saying with a straight face that these seats are “better” or (hilariously…practically as if ripped from the headline of the satirical newspaper “The Onion” ) “no different” which itself is an admission that the seats are NOT better, and is the functional equivalent to avoid trying to say they’re “not worse” (even though we and he know they’re not just worse, they’re MUCH worse), is the day I’ll finally take him at his word — instead of with a grain of salt.

    So, in closing, with those seats already looking so horribly uncomfortable in a hotel room with high ceilings, no sidewalls, “aisles” on both sides instead of squeezing in from one side, and of course, no other passengers crammed beside while “test riding” for a few moments versus stuck for endless hours that for sure will feel like an eternity in real world circumstances, my question is thus:

    Were those two rows of these “new & (anything but) improved” seats on display in their best possible, dressed to impress, display at investors’/media day there to really inspire or confidently promote to passengers the promise of a “better, more comfortable, passenger pleasing” ride aboard AA’s 737s (and whatever other aircraft these torture chairs will be “experienced”)? Or were these atrocious seats there to send a message to shareholders that there is no low, low enough, they will go to screw passengers in order to win approval for the bigger salaries and fatter stock options that Parker and his top lieutenants will surely be rewarded with in the future when there’s more billions of dollars available to fund even bigger, and more obscenely generous stock buybacks, than the already obscenely large stock buybacks seen in recent years since the airline industry became an oligopoly, and most airlines focused their efforts on ways to screw passengers to make money because there’s no longer any need to compete by making things better for us?

    Just curious…

  28. The ONLY reason I choose AA currently is flight schedules on one route I fly. I do my best to avoid that route but when I have to (it really benefits my family if I fly it) I buy up to MCE. Once the new seats are onboard I’ll just have to fly DL on the worse schedule options…

  29. I came from being an Aadvantage Executive Platinum, to Platinum, to Gold and to fly Southwest and Jetblue only. 30″ of pitch? Jeez, I would rather fly Spirit non stop for a quarter of the price AA wants for their flights
    American Airlines has lost it. They are becoming one of the worst airlines in the industry. Their AAdvantage program used to be the best, now its one of the worst. They have 5 different type of configurations for each plane so you never know what you will get. I would rather fly on Jetblue knowing what I will get including free gate to gate WiFi, or fly Southwest knowing I can get a good seat and great free streaming on my tablet. Bye Bye American.

  30. Looks terrible. No chance I’d fly in that seat unless I had to take the trip and there were no other options. Maybe if enough people voted with their wallet AA would reconsider.

  31. How many MCE seats will they actually have? My biggest reason for preferring UA over AA is that UA planes actually have enough E+ seats I can usually get one, AA not so much (if they have any at all).

    Of course, the ideal solution is just fly JetBlue or Virgin/Alaska, if you can. JetBlue remains by a wide margin the most comfortable airline in the US.

  32. AA is now better positioned to win the race to the bottom. When quality disappears in your business then you are forced to compete on price. Eventually the only way for AA to fill those seats will be drastic price drops.

    Here is the formula:

    More seat miles x lower revenue per seat mile = no change in net revenue + brand erosion

    When the next recession hits who will the folks with money want to fly with?

  33. The smaller lavs will no doubt resemble the new smaller labs on Delta which are incredibly tight. I am 6’2″ and 215 lbs. Watching the passenger boarding process is hysterical because 50% of the passengers are much larger than me in weight. They would have to be pried into those lavs. It is a joke what they are doing to squeeze (pun intended) more money out of us.
    Taking away the seat back video screen actually decreases space. When 3 passengers are trying to use their laptops and tablets to watch videos or do work, you have 3 sets of elbows trying not to encroach on each other. It is painful. That is why I buy first class on every single flight. I will change days, or flights to get the lowest first class fare, but I refuse (unless it is JetBlue) to fly in coach anymore. It is not so much the lack of legroom, although that is a major reason, it is the largess of all passengers these days. The last 3 times I flew coach, I was pushed into the aisle from my aisle seat by an obese passenger in the middle seat. On a cross country flight. NEVER AGAIN. I would rather spend a couple hundred extra dollars to not have the stress, the stench or the claustrophobia of coach.

  34. @jaycee3 – deregulation? government keeps out competition! foreign airlines cannot own carriers operating in the u.s., government-owned airports tie up gates in long term leases with incumbent carriers that new airlines can’t break into.

  35. I cannot imagine voluntarily flying in that seat.
    I cannot imagine paying to fly in those seats.

    Frankly I do not believe anyone larger than a leprechaun could be comfortable in those seats.

    My primary concern now is how I avoid the crushing 31 inch seats without paying the earth.
    Less room? With Valium so difficult to get these days?

    NO Way.

  36. “That is why I buy first class on every single flight. I will change days, or flights to get the lowest first class fare, but I refuse (unless it is JetBlue) to fly in coach anymore. It is not so much the lack of legroom, although that is a major reason, it is the largess of all passengers these days.”

    A few years ago, I would have thought this idea was ridiculous. But now, it actually makes sense. For the occasional traveler with no hope of achieving “status” or having $200K a year in credit card spend, this is the most realistic way to stay sane in today’s unfriendly skies. For those of us who remember golden age of flying, riding upfront is a reasonably similar experience at a similar price: Consider that $300 “coach” ticket from 1978: In today’s dollars, that’s roughly $1167– a figure that can generally buy a first class fare to most of the US.

    It’s sad that it’s come to this. But buying my way out of the misery whenever possible is my new practice. That, or flying shorter hauls with the few carriers that actually seem to care. (Hello JetBlue and I’ll miss you, Virgin America).

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