The Boeing 737 MAX Is Safe, But I Don’t Want To Fly It With American Airlines

I have absolutely no qualms flying a Boeing 737 MAX once it returns to commercial service in about six weeks. This plane is safe to fly.

The MAX now compares data from both angle of attack sensors and if there’s a material difference between the sensors then the MCAS system will be inhibited throughout the flight. The system only activates once per incident, eliminating repetitive nose-down pitch. And pilots maintain elevator authority for the aircraft.

Runaway stab trim is inhibited automatically, no longer requiring use of a non-normal checklist. But pilots are receiving explicit training on the issues that occurred with the MAX previously nonetheless.

And make no mistake, these are rare issues to begin with – American Airlines never had a single issue with trim or angle of attack in over 7000 flights, and never had angle of attack issues in over 700,000 hours of Boeing 737-800 flying and it’s the same part.

That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to flying the 737 MAX on American Airlines! This is because of the interior of the cabin and not because of the safety of the aircraft.

  • Less room between seats
  • Thinner, less padded seats
  • No seat back video
  • This is even true in Main Cabin Extra and first class

American has been removing seat back screens from its existing Boeing 737s, too, as it standardizes the interiors of its cabins in a new less comfortable configuration. When US Airways management took over at American Airlines, Boeing 737s had 150 seats. The new configuration has 172 seats. And unfortunately so far about 65% of American’s 324 Boeing 737s have the new cabin.

In a question and answer session with flight attendants about the Boeing 737 MAX last week, American Airlines President Robert Isom said “this aircraft is going to be equal to anything anybody else has out there in terms of seat pitch, in terms of creature comforts, and in terms of all accommodations.” But that’s not true. Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAXs offer at least 32 inches between seats, compared to American’s standard 30 inches.

It may be a long time before there’s significant capital investment in the customer experience again. But it’s important to understand clearly where your product fits in the marketplace. Going into the pandemic American Airlines offered:

  • International business class. American’s seats were good, albeit lacking in some important details. Their lounges were improving, and so were their amenity kits. Service was hit-or-miss, and inflight food not very good.

  • International economy. American lags Delta, whose Boeing 777s were 9-abreast and where flight attendants offered hot towels and welcome cocktails and said thank you.

  • Domestic premium cabin. There’s nothing that compares to Mint outside of the premium cross country routes (and even there JetBlue does a nice job with meals). For shorter routes American Airlines partner Alaska Airlines has a lot to teach American about inflight cuisine.

    American’s old standard domestic first class had 40 inches from seat back to seat back, and now has just 36. Seats have less padding, too, so aren’t as comfortable for long domestic flights. And that’s true even after American fixes several of the problems with its new seat.

  • Domestic economy. American simply does not offer a premium domestic product. Southwest Airlines has two more inches of space between every seat. Southwest’s and Delta’s service is better, and Delta certainly more reliable.

    Sure, American has extra legroom coach seats which are closer to what Southwest offers, but their new domestic configuration has fewer of those than ever before.

American’s strengths were its international business class and its route network. The domestic customer-facing product was weak, and still is. Removing seat back television, cramming more seats into the cabin, and compensating by using seats with less padding makes it weaker still.

This is going to be a bigger challenge for American than ever because airlines are going to be fighting tooth and nail for whatever passenger business is out there, and American will have an inferior product to offer for the domestic trips most customers are looking to buy.

They can entice customers with price, but they have higher trip costs since they didn’t convince many employees to take early retirements. Furloughs mean that only the most senior and highest-paid employees are left working every flight. And they have a higher debt burden than any other airline in the world, so need even more revenue to be competitive and service that debt prior to earning a profit (and paying down some of that debt). Yet American’s standard domestic product is not competitive with the largest domestic airline in the country.

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. AA has been deteriorating for years. I now use SWA for all of my domestic flights and they are superb. The B737 MAX will soon take over the world once more.

  2. The MCAS was installed on the MAX for a reason: to compensate for the inherent unstable (CG aft) of the plane. By fixing the sensors which provide information to the MCAS, Boeing reduced the likelihood of it being unnecessarily activated. Unfortunately it also created a possibility of the MCAS failing to activate when it is needed. In a nose high, near stall situation, if the two sensors provide inconsistent data, the MCAS would not deploy. The MAX would be faced with its built in instability. Any trained test pilot would easily recognize the situation and recover from it. Not so the average airline transport pilot, though. The MAX is dangerous by design.

  3. Boeing+FAA have but scratched the surface with regards to fixing what clearly are the underlying issues with their B737-8-9-Max product line. Fitting a third /more sensors to the aircraft would have been a start, installing a new flight computer with two primary lanes hard wired in, and at least two standby /redundancy lanes hard wired in would have helped, in deed ALL flight management computers should have been replaced /redesigned to provide at least two prime hardwired lanes and two tershery /standby lanes to get you home safely lanes of control. As for fitting of these new engines further back under the wing? Had Boeing actually thought about this at design stage then built their NEWLY designed undercarriage at new build yes the aircraft would have stood 6″ taller-so dammed what? On board stairs=one more step, Airport Air Stairs were built with lift, lower, left, or right functions when new-and can be preset to each aircraft type, so what in Gods name does 6″ higher got to do with this one asks? Quite simple really when one looks back at the Boeing culture of design, and build-start with ANY Boeing Design, the B737, B747, B757, B767, B777, and B787-the basic core design has never never been changed since day 1-fact!! Yes they stretch the design, yes they change the material specifications to more modern /stronger materials, yes they replace the avionics architecture BUT the original /basic core design /Hydraulics /Fuel System / Engines /Flight Controls /Undercarriage remains as is-that is unless upgrades or changes to engine thrust or operating characteristics of the onboard aircraft flight systems are required which will require upgrades.
    My point the B737-8 /9-Max may be new build off the line, but the basic structure /build of that structure /systems within are all unchanged since late 60’s-and that IS a good thing after all why change what IS NOT Broken? So where are the issues with the B737-9/9/Max? Quite simply it is in the bits that converted it from a B737-800 into the B737-8/9-Max.
    Yes raising the Undercarriage now by 6″ moving the engines back under the wings, adding more sensors, redesigning ALL the flight and management computers to include MORE redundancy WILL Yes WILL cost money but what is cheaper more smokey holes or an aircraft designed and built as the B737-100 in the 60’s was to fly billions of miles with NO Emergency Incidents that end up with Yet More Deaths ????????????????????????????

  4. Yes, quite simply. But wouldn’t all of those changes have required a bunch of re-analysis to make sure something else didn’t break as a result? Along with a bunch of re-tooling and re-parting? This itself could well sink the company and its customers, too?? Quite simply, it’s not so simple.

    (I think they made some bad and arrogant decisions, but over-scoping the project wasn’t one if them.)

    This is the kind of sad case that will be studied and debated for years. Quite simply.

  5. Stability augmentation systems are not new to airplanes. MCAS was designed to overcome a situation that a properly skilled and trained pilot or crew would recognize and prevent or stop before a real problem occurs. Using electronics to compensate for a design flaw which is what the root problem is in the MAX and will not change or go away. Turn off or fail the MCAS and you have a static / divergent airplane again. Airline Pilots are not trained nor skilled in flying airplanes designed like the MAX. Also the Airline pilots were “Mushroomed” in training on the MAX and did not have a good understanding of the system and how to handle the problems with it.
    Age old problem in aviation: You make the Pilot in Command of an airplane but restrict his authority to act. Been there for 53 years and 33000 hours

  6. AA has the worst in flight experience. Sure they will get you there, but others do it better.
    2019 I took an AA flight from Dallas to Morelia Mexico. I was surprised that none of the announcements were Spanish and the FA’s did not know any Spanish. The FAs were upset that some passengers did not understand them.

  7. All you and those comments I will see you at the gate flying on B Fares expecting first class treatment.
    Wich you get what you paid for..

  8. As soon as you mention JetBlue – a low cost carrier, having the best premium product you lost respect. That is laughable to say the least.

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