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.

  9. While some will call me an AA fanboy, I disagree with a couple things. These are based on my personal experience of flying over 70,000 miles on AA this year. Still only PP because the flights have been so cheap. I need $800 to get to EP and that’s with the $3000 from my Barclays silver spend.

    You state SW and Delta have better customer service. Maybe surveys show that but most of us never have an issue and I believe their FA’s are friendly and helpful. Not sure how SW is even a comparison when they don’t offer FC. And why is Delta more reliable? I’ve had exactly 1 flight moved in 60 segments this year and that was because my airport was closed for Hurricane ETA a couple weeks back. And I was provided multiple options for rebooking.

    AA, like the other airlines have been more than generous with pricing, offers and options for their frequent fliers in a tough year for the airlines.

    But I agree with your premise the Max is safe but the seats are an issue.

  10. A couple of things. The foundational issue which is not addressed is Boeing’s management culture. The relocation of HQ from Seattle to Chicago was very symbolic and represented the change that Boeing wanted to be closer to the Wall Street Banksters than the engineers who had created such magnificent airplanes.

    Arrogant managers from Chicago descended on those designing and building the airplane with demands like “make that happen NOW or we’ll find someone who can”.

    It’s not just about the Max; the Air Force Replacement Tanker program is more than a decade behind schedule and tens of billions over budget. From the corruption of the 1990s decision that lead to felony convictions / pleas of top Boeing and Pentagon officials to Obama’s decision to overturn a subsequent Bush administration to cancel the contract and go with provien Airbus Tankers to the Max you have the same people and attitudes that caused the 2007 collapse running Boeing. It’s no longer essential to be the best only the best politically connected.

    The FAA wisely requires that control forces required to raise the nose (slow the airplane) increase as the airplane slows (aoa increases) in order to provide the pilot with a tactile feel and resist getting the airplane into a stall. However, when the Max received the large engines mounted well forward of the center of lift it was found that the engine cowling produced lift as aoa increased thus reducing control forces .

    The AOA sensor is one of the most unreliable sensors on the airplane. Mounted on the body , normally very closely aligned with the cockpit windows above it is subject to damage on the ground , from birds and such in the air etc. To give one sensor the ability to run trim without a highly visible warning and to fail to compare data from the other sensor was both stupid and criminal negligence. Southwest Airlines recognized the danger and paid $18,000 per airplane to have an aoa anomaly (disagreement between sensors) installed in each airplane.

    Boeing took the Southwest payments but failed to provide the warning lights.

    The control logic , probably written by offshore engineers whose transportation mode was a bicycle made detection of problems in the system largely invisible to the pilots as the system would turn on and off. But eventually the system won and cranked full nose down trim overcoming the ability of the pilots to use manual trim or control the airplane with the conventional controls.

    There is clear evidence that Boeing scrubbed some of the information regarding the system dangers from the Pilot Manual as it is mentioned in the index but missing in the document. Boeing wanted pilots to be able to transfer to the max without simulator training if they were rated in the smaller , older version of the airplane.

    The one bright spot in the whole process was the President of Boeing calling Trump and demanding that the airplane not be grounded . His arrogance shielded him from the reality that having called Trump the President had no other option than to ground the airplane which in retrospect proved to be a very sound decision and saved hundreds of lives.

    Rather than celebrating the return of the aircraft to service we should be exploring what needs to be done to root out this management culture and its relationship with regulatory agencies to protect the stockholders, the employees and most of all the lives of people around the world. The examination should also include the AF Tanker program.

    In closing , we went from our first suborbital manned flight to the moon in a single decade and yet it has taken more than two decades for Boeing to deliver a single deployable tanker. More people have been convicted of felonies associated with the program than have tanker s been delivered.

  11. I totally disagree about not flying the MAX on AA. I would not fly ANY airplane on AA. I have been Executive Platinum for 11 years and this will be my last. Covid taught me I can do without EXP and I feel FREE from AA FOREVER. Dozens of screwed up flights, hundreds of incompetent cabin staff (although hundreds are not), lack of coordination, lack of information, lack of urgency, lack of carrying, lack of foresight (didn’t order fuel? Really?), charge for anything you can come up with, and, of course interior cabin design approaching the a sardine factory’s ideal model…and it smells like one sometimes too. What a pathetic end for a once great airline. I feel sorry for people who are competent and carrying in their service being taken down by pathetic leadership and horrible coworkers.

  12. I agree with Dee. I have been an Advantage member since day one and since the US Air take over, service levels have continued to spiral downward. My wife and I are taking our last AA flights in early 2021 to use up a credit from our poor experience from earlier this year. Full fare first class, no communication, false statements, lack of any empathy for their customers. I have a choice in who I fly and while I cannot fly SWA, I will begin to see more and ore flights on Delta. Even though I have no status on Delta, they always make sure to treat me well and thank me for fly with them. American hasn’t done that in years.

  13. I usually do not fly AA so have no comment on them but my nephew is executive with Boeing and told me that there is nothing inheriting wrong with the structure of the max plane and the engines placed forward a little did not change the dynamics of flight to cause a problem. Problem was that the new engines are bugger, yes, but the problem was that the test pilots found that pushing the throttle forward to an experienced 737 pilot that if they were not paying attention could change the attitude of the aircraft because of a 25% increase in gas mileage and power. Now the planes that went down the owners of the airlines opted to get only one attitude sensor instead of two as the designs call for to save money. Boeing warns potential buyers that it could be but they told Boeing their pilots were good enough to handle it if it started to go into a stall configuration. Now Boeing does not make that an option any longer. Normally the horizontal stabilizer will compensate for the nose up when in autopilot with multiple sensors, but they were fighting the system. Now the funny thing about all this is that if you recall several years ago that Airbus but in the same type of system in their planes and had about the same results and when there was talk about grounding the Airbus fleets the European nations squawked that it would bankrupt them and so they let them keep flying while they fixed the problem. I guess a company has less clout than several countries.
    No I won’t ride in an Airbus ,plane as they are completely fly by wire and no cable back up in case power goes down or the main and backup systems fail. No all Boeing aircraft don’t get the distance that Airbus gets, but in case fly by wire fails, they still have the old systems of cables to control an aircraft. Airbus the only option in that case will be using the thrust of the engines to try and steer the aircraft. I would rather land a second time and have the option to control an aircraft the old way than go where the aircraft wants to go. Plus the times I flew on Airbus it banged and made all kinds of noises and being an old Air Force person, I didn’t feel safe on the several flights I had, and the last one was only a month in service from the factory and it reminded me of the old cargo plane the Air Force had that we all said was 10,000 nuts and bolts flying in loose formation.

  14. It’s OK to criticize AA on whatever issue you are upset about, but don’t link your criticism to a safety issue. As you state, your complaint is a separate issue, but you “hook” folks in with the title referring to safety.

  15. Flown AA quite a bit lately and do not rate then quite as good as other airlines in many areas but still will fly with them . However my big problem is with the seating arrangement in the 737s. Too damn tight…I am a slim 6′ 1″”. . Have been bumped to other airlines and noticed more legroom, etc on Alaska, Delta, United and even JetBlue! Alaska rewards now partnering with AA so may move in that direction..
    Worked as a Boeing contractor and heard a lot of scuttlebut from various employees partially blaming a detrimental cultural change on the merger with Lockheed…
    I am not a pilot or engineer but it seems feasable to me that adapting the 1960s 737 over time has finally reached its modification limits to still expect to be competitive with a competitors more contemporary product. A new version of the same class of aircraft would have been a better option to implement but with the recent Boeing setbacks concerning the early 787 implementation and the current 737 Max and tanker fiascos Boeing has been and still is hard pressed to develop any new aircraft. And they at least need both a contemporary replacement for the 737 and a new mid capacity aircraft between the 737 and 787 to remain competitive in the long haul. They are not in a good place right now, needless to say.

  16. Gary – I agree with you about the inherently awful AA/Oasis product – retrofit of 737s (including lavatories that are way too small for an average-sized traveler). Clearly, AA lacks a ‘culture of service’ and has been resting on their laurels/past history of better quality product. With all airlines, it seems to be a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of service, comfort, quality of the product. Covid will realign the airline world and I agree that DL and LUV are likely to emerge stronger… A note/bugaboo about DL – one reason I don’t fly them has been b/c they count “comfort+” as an upgrade – which, IMO is ridiculous… I’m 6’2″ and don’t fit into most standard coach products. I have been EXP for years on AA in part b/c they don’t consider Main Cabin Plus to be an upgrade. I think I’ll be re-evaluating this once I resume flying again in 2021 or 2022… Most likely to just fly whichever airline offers a convenient non-stop with seat pitch of 32″+ in coach…

  17. Just completed two trips in the AMERICAN 737 Max. I totally trust American that they are safe for air travel. However, I will fly other airlines on domestic travel from DFW that will require use of the 737 Max. I have flow 3 million actual miles on American and deeply regret my being forced to change domestic carriers . It is without a doubt the most uncomfortable coach class product on the market today. I have a normal shoulder width and cannot sit next to anyone without being in direct contact. The seat has no legroom and the aisles are so narrow that one hates getting up to venture down one. Obviously, AA executives have never ridden in one for four hours or more likely in the interest in economy have chosen to ignore these facts. With deep regret , goodbye to my favorite carrier on domestic routes flying this poorly designed flying prison after 25 years of flying with you.

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