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 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. No. The 737 Max is unsafe due to its inherently flawed design. Further, the FAA is just window-dressing its so-called fixes so Boeing gets a second chance to recover from inevitable finacial ruin. (They will never go under with their lucrative, grifting defense contracts.)

    As the 737-900 was a certfication gifthorse from the FAA and also should have never been built, the FAA gave Boeing an inch and their incompetent, greedy management took it a nautical mile.

    The malfeasance of both entities (and Southwest & American Airlines) is disgusting.

  2. Who knew how good we had it when all we had to do was worry the max would crash
    now we have to worry about fellow passengers infecting us with Rona Virus
    Say no to American cramped seating and lavatories designed with midgets in mind
    Will it be transparent which are the max jets that have the new bandaids when booking?

  3. That plane is not “safe” – It was certified “safe” the first time and look what happened? then software fixes, still not safe. What on earth makes you think it’s right now? Keith’s comment is 100% dead on. Boeing cut corners and created a fundamentally flawed design, then such failure exposed just how unsafe the entire process is at Boeing. This is far from over and “safe.” You are not an avionics engineer, you are not qualified to make a statement like this. Posting statements like “This plane is safe” is misleading at best and only add to dis-information. I urge to you re-write this article.

  4. No back seat video? Who even needs that anymore? Who doesn’t have their own smart device so the can watch their preferred content anyways?

    I’m pretty sure there have been NASA ASAP reports about trim and the 737max… So idk how you can boldy state “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.”

  5. I hadn’t flown since March and took my first trip earlier this month. Based out of Orange County, we seemed to be spared the reconfigured 737-800’s earlier this year as all of my flights still had the old configuration with seatback IFE. That has now changed.

    My seats were in first, so I didn’t experience economy. The seats were definitely MUCH less comfortable than the old seats and felt really cheap. The padding was thinner/firmer and there was a lack of lumbar support. My flights were roughly 3 hours per segment and my back and legs were uncomfortable throughout the flight.

    I’d avoid this configuration in first if flying over 2 – 2 /12 hours. Based on my experience in first, I’ll avoid this configuration in economy altogether.

    That’s going to be impossible going forward and, unfortunately, is probably going to mean switching airlines after 2M lifetime miles and several years as EXP. I appreciate the recent efforts AA is putting into trying to become competitive and they have a great international business product/Oneworld benefits. But, most of my flying is domestic and after my experience on these flights and the amount of time I spend in the air (under pre/post-pandemic business travel conditions) it’s just too uncomfortable when there are better options out there.

  6. Gary how exactly do we know this plane is safe to fly? I know you are probably right but technically we still don’t *know* this for sure, right?

  7. No seatback screens are an improvement. On a domestic I’ll take a seat with screens in the back over one with screens in the back any day.

  8. Lack of seat back screens is no big deal. The last time I was on a flight with seat back video, it was so close to my face that I couldn’t focus my eyes on it anyway.

  9. One of the reasons the 737 had 150 seats was because the wpul block some middles in the back of the plane to be able to fly it with only three Fa. Of course you failed to mention that,and make it sound like the additional seats were just cramped in.

  10. WE GET IT [redacted] .. YOU HATE AA … GET A LIFE ….

    Oh and also UA has the same interior

    GET [redacted]

  11. After 2+MM miles and 40 years of flying AA, I’m so glad I’m retired. Flying used to be OK and we were treated well; clearly past tense.

  12. Mr. Gary Left first than all you are not an aircraft mechanic. All Amercan carrier don’t offer a good product and service compare with other airlines in the world. I flew the 737 max and I will continue flying it. I think you are prejudiced with one airline in particular. Let’s be impartial.

  13. The DeHavilland Comet had multiple hull failures early on, was grounded, fixed and returned to fly safely for years. The Lockheed Electra had early problems with engine mounts, was grounded, fixed and returned to service for decades. The DC-10 had fatal flaws in the cargo door design was fixed and, well you get my drift.

    The Max, even before an unprecedented depth of scrutiny and reengineering, flew tens of thousands of legs in North America without problems…

  14. Getting rid of the seatback screen is great. Most people who aren’t using them don’t know how to turn them off and thus they stay brightly lit up for the entire flight bothering anyone within eyesight in a dimly lit plane. Plus, the giant power boxes under the seats to support the entertainment system are legroom killers. It’s 2020: Use your smartphone or iPad if you wanna watch a movie.

  15. As a AA MM I have felt this airlines decline in seating service and character.
    I look forward to domestic flights by Southwest soon out of ORD…i have a upcoming flight on A321 where seating iš some what better, especially in aisle 25 by midship exit…wish they would offer a ‘challenge’…

  16. I’m mot flying on any airline that uses the 747 max. Let’s see if all the executives and their families fly on a 747 max first.

  17. When American Airlines took over TWA they acquired the Base with the best safety record in the industry with the MCI Kansas City overhaul Base, and they shut it down. Their maintenance safety record went down hill at that time. Yes I’m a disgruntled aircraft mechanic.

  18. GET A LIFE AND LEAVE AA ALONE, you ALWAYS taking BAD ABOUT THEM HOW ABOUT UNITED SAME ISSUE SAME PRODUCT GET A DAMN LIFE DUDE!!!

  19. Wow,
    A grammatically or otherwise coherent correct sentence.
    in English would be nice but if English is your second language, then I appreciate the effort.
    I will not fly the plane until a prudent extension of time has passed.
    It is only sensible.

  20. Funny how no one mentions that the Boeing 737 WAS SUPPOSED to,ve put out a safe product upon the ORIGINAL delivery of these planes, back in 2017, in accordance with the PROPER flight training for pilots to do their jobs to the best of safety, now over 300 are dead and we’re supposed to just forget this? How “fitting” we now have Boeing, the FAA, two agencies we relied upon to protect us and put our trust in to reassure us we’re safe, coming out with all these convincing paid spokespeople in the industry (no doubt i.e. ex pilots, travel bloggers, periodicals) that “it’s ok”…

    I WONT be plying the Boeing 737 MAX, if I can help it,. I plan to do my research and find out as much as I can upon purchasing my tickets online, calling the airline, figuring out more of which routes utilize that troubling plane’s service and going with airlines that are MORE capable of protecting customers safety than greedy executives trying to make a buck any which way they can…. I hear Delta won’t be… looks like I’ll be avoiding American AND Southwest Air at all costs

  21. There once was a program instituted by American Airlines called “MORE ROOM IN COACH” when AA actually removed two rows of seats in coach. It gave folks about 2″ of more legroom. Businessmen raved about it, and did the flying public LOVED it! But, it cut into PROFIT$ so AA sided with the Stockholders to make more money. So, back in went the seats. And now even MORE seats go in along with the tiny “Oasis” toilets. Apparently nobody at AA’s new corporate offices shop at Wal Mart to see how thin the flying public has become in 20+ years.

  22. I will wait until more trustworthy aviation safety bodies certify this aerodynamically flawed plane as safe and there have then been 5 years of incident free operation.

  23. This plane will crash again within a year. They put the wrong engines on originally and used software to try to compensate. Software will still not save it. It’s like putting a smaller front right tire on a car then compensating by steering left more. You have to have the right design. Americans drool over money. It is their God. Remember this post after the next crash.

  24. I’m a dedicated AA multi-MM and have started flying again … mostly on 737 Oasis conversations and A321s. I prefer the A321 because there are a few seats that simply can’t be beat.

    It’s getting hard to find a pre-Oasis 737. My cheat: if the seating chart shows 33 rows (instead of the original 30 rows), it’s an Oasis conversation.

    I’ve been surprised to find that the sinks don’t seem to have been converted to kidney-style. Has AA decided to keep the older, more functional style?? Did they abandon the whole tight-squeeze bathroom design? Seems like a good move, considering how reviled the new design is, and the marginal cost-benefit proposition?

    Can anyone speak to this??

    Entertainment system: be gone! … it was poorly responsive and buggy from the start. Another poor cost-benefit proposition. Replacing them with personal devices is a plausible idea, but immediately faceplants because the in-seat charging is so flawed: underpowered for modern devices, and USB connectors that wear far too quickly … USB connectors were never designed for frequent connect/disconnects. AA has painted itself into a corner here.

    Seats: coach seats are functional but not luxurious… fine for a 2 hour flight. The problem is that AA also uses them on 6 hour flights. Can 10 hour flights be far behind? DVT, for sure. Are they hoping we won’t notice?? And first class seats? … no longer worth the extra $$ cost or upgrade stickers. Sad service, sad seat pitch, sad amenities.

    Welcome to de-regulation, fellow passengers… we’re definitely getting what we paid for! (No, this isn’t Kansas anymore, and there is no free lunch.)

  25. @Gary Leff – when they do, then the five year clock of incident free operation starts.

    With those disproportionately large engines, Boeing has done what a child constructing a paper plane knows not to do i.e. create even the smallest interruptions to the airflow which could cause the frame to flip up or down.

    Once bitten, twice shy, I’ll wait for practical evidence that this has now been reliably and safely overcome – even if someone flies them beforehand with seats and toilets which don’t require Houdini-like contortionist skills to get into.

  26. AA’s layout works fine and just blogger hatred towards AA seems to be an issue. DL has the SAME pitch on their A321s and refit A320 series as well as the 737-900 and 757 with 199 seats. DL is actually worse since you lose space with the IFE and the huge technology boxes under the seat. Plus DL overhead space isn’t the massive XL or Spacebins on many planes that AA uses.

    I have flown cross country on Oasis, Kodiak and new Neos and have found them now worse or then DL or UA and in some cases better (AA’s WIFI and entertainment is wayyyy better).

    So say what you must be the facts that people fly AA more then DL might show how people are voting. Let go of your Oasis rant. . .we are tired of it and no one cares any more.

  27. This aircraft is just as “safe” as Flint, MI water is healthy.

    Anyone who puts their trust in Boeing or the FAA certifiers is crazy…..

  28. I get the “less padding and leg room” argument if the flight is over 3 hours. But most of my flying is well below that and because I let my wallet do the talking (or my clients’ travel guidelines) I don’t mind what or who I fly as long as the schedule and cost makes sense to me.

    I think its time to let go of ‘what was” and focus on “what is”…

  29. Why must everything hinge on greed? The enjoyment of flying was taxed enough after 911. Americans are not getting thinner either. CEO’s take private jets or the cushiest seat up front but treating us like cattle aint gonna cut it.

  30. I’d rather go to the dentist than get on any U.S. airline. The seats are comfortable and they give you something for the pain.

  31. How many signatures do we have to get to convince AA that their new seating isn’t humane?
    I we will be told to vote by using another airline.
    But AA is so big they are often the only airline, or one is invested with miles and club membership and then get squeezed in like that!!
    “Oh, stop being so cheap,” they answer. Buy the upgraded seat. $46 x 4 legs for the average trip = $184 for what they should be giving me anyway, and the original ticket was $398 – not a good deal.

  32. Not a chance in hell. This is software to fix a bad design flaw. Fix the plane. If you can’t, scrap them. That’s the option.

  33. @EasyVictor … uh, not exactly. Given the efficiencies needed for modern airframes, it’s very common for control surfaces and other functions to be software-controlled. As an extreme example, the B-2 couldn’t fly at all without many software interventions per second. Commercial airliners aren’t so dependent, but they are definitely cyber-physical systems, too. If you’re really advocating flying only planes that wouldn’t crash without their software, I think you might want to start flapping your arms very aggressively. That will soon be the only way you’ll get off the ground.

  34. Take it from an engineer. This plane didn’t need so much a SOFTWARE FIX as it did REDUNDANT SENSORS. The reason the 2 planes crashed was the sensors failed / were faulty (second crash they reported it before take off – pilot from previous flight). I read everything. I know a design flaw when I see (1) sensor used for this TAKEOVER THE PLANE thing – the planes engines being different and too far forward …. The F117 had over 100 sensors to make it fly perfect. It never relied on just (1) sensor to fly an aircraft that wasn’t stable.

  35. With everything that has caused travel meltdown & hit ALL modes of transportation it seems possible that some human awareness & common sense could/should/ would cause the airline component to figure out that we are assets not cattle. It is past due for a wake up call.

  36. I, too, am bummed out by the ever-shrinking seat pitch in Econ…especially on American Airlines. But The Market has spoken. The traveling public decided flying has to be cheap; except, it’s not cheap, so cuts have to be made somewhere or there’s no more profit, and no more airline. You gotta pony up if you want that leg room, that’s reality (Econ+ doesn’t cost that much). Or, take the train next time…?? (queue laugh-track)

  37. @Steve Komman – Southwest absolutely does not, they have 2 additional inches between seats (minimum) compared to American Airlines coach on their MAXs.

  38. The 737 8 and the Max have terrible interior and I agree that is why I refuse to fly with either American or United… Try out the mini bathroom…

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