American Concedes a Small Victory to the Back of the Bus


It wasn’t long ago that I brought the Cranky Jackass award back in order to chastise American for cutting seat pitch just a bit too far. I, of course, had joined a chorus of others who lambasted the airline for making the move. And now it’s been reversed. This isn’t a huge victory, but it is a win for those who fly in the back and should be celebrated.

If you recall, American’s plan was to squeeze an incredible 172 seats on its 737 MAX 8 aircraft which will arrive later this year. How was American going to do that? Well it was going to cut First Class seat pitch by a couple inches and do the same in Main Cabin Extra. Then it would pack in coach seats and use space-saving galleys and lavs. The end result was a mind-numbing number of seats. And three of those rows cut below my red line on minimum basic comfort, 30 inches of seat pitch. (They were at 29 inches.)

Now American has surrendered to the uprising and has decided to cut out one row of Main Cabin Extra (MCE) and replace it with a regular coach row instead. That means there will now be 5 instead of 6 rows of MCE on the airplane. It will then spread those inches throughout regular coach so that nobody has less than 30 inches of pitch. Considering American gave up one row that it could have used to upsell coach passengers for this, it is a real victory and one the mildly limits American’s ancillary revenue generation opportunities. So travelers should celebrate.

Here’s a crudely and inaccurately drawn diagram of what’s happening. (The inaccuracy is that Main Cabin Extra isn’t all together in the front behind First Class. There are actually three rows forward and then 2 on the window exit.) But you get the point.

It’s not just travelers who should be happy. A lot of people at American are going to be happy as well. I heard from a lot of people internally who were embarrassed about the decision to go with 29 inches of pitch. They felt as I did that this crossed a line that separates the legacy airlines from their ultra low cost counterparts.

Presumably, though I have been unable to prove this, whomever leaked the news in the first place did so for this exact reason. Can’t win a fight internally to preserve seat pitch? Leak it and let the public put pressure on. Like I said, I don’t know for sure that this is what happened, but if so, kudos to that person. This worked brilliantly. If it was just a happy accident, well, it still ended well.

Of course we don’t know what the experience will actually be like on the airplane. After all, there are still 172 seats crammed into this tube. Seat pitch isn’t a great metric since you can keep personal space the same by just using a thinner seat. But will the new seat American uses be comfortable? And will there be enough lav and galley space to properly service 172 passengers? We just won’t know until the airplane starts flying.

Would I have preferred to see American just remove one row of coach from the airplane? Sure. But maybe the new experience will still be ok. We’ll find out soon enough. In the meantime, this is a win for everyone in regular coach who might have been stuck with an inch less room. It might not seem like much, but I say you take what you can get.

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26 comments on “American Concedes a Small Victory to the Back of the Bus

  1. Maybe this is marginally better than it would have been, but it’s hardly a victory.

    1. 30 inch pitch standard versus 31

    2. ‘But you won’t notice because we’ll use uncomfortable slimline seats!’ This isn’t a plane replacing small regional jets on short routes, the 737 already is the mainstay of the domestic fleet and these aircraft are designed for long missions.

    3. No seatback video I bring my own device, but it’s hard to open today in standard coach…

    4. American already reduced the size of their Main Cabin Extra cabin. Reducing it further means fewer opportunities to get out of what will still be the tightest legacy economy seating. (As it is it can be hard for elites buying tickets a couple of weeks before travel to get into MCE, it’s helpful to set a free expertflyer seat alert and when some elite gets upgraded you take their better coach seat)

    Say that pitch isn’t a perfect measure all you want, but cramming 172 seats into the plane is going to be a less comfortable configuration than American’s already-densified 737s.

    And it means offering a product that’s hardly competitive with Southwest, JetBlue, Alaska.

    Don’t even get me started on the lavs….

  2. I have 2 questions:
    1. Does AA have to run the evacuation drills to ensure that 172 passengers jammed into a can can evacuate in 90 seconds or less? (CF do they use realistic drills with ordinary flyers of every size and age or are these employees)?
    2. How much smaller will they be making the lavs? I am 6’2″ and 205 pounds. It’s tough enough to do your business in a flying MRI machine.

    1. Ryanair configures their 737-800s with 189 seats, which is also the aircraft’s maximum passenger capacity based on evacuation requirements (at least according to Wikipedia).

    2. The manufacturer, Boeing, has to certify the maximum number of seats on an aircraft. An airline can’t put more than that number of seats on the plane. So AA doesn’t have to do the 90 second certification, Boeing does, and did.

      And AFAIK, they now just use computer modeling for most evacuation certification as its safer. EASA didn’t allow Airbus to do this with the A380 thought as they weren’t sure if there would be any differences given the dual deck nature of that plane, so Airbus had to do a real drill with real people. Everyone got off in time, although one person broke their leg.

    3. Wild Bill – Looks like #1 was answered well, but on #2 if you’ve flown a Delta 737-900ER, it’ll probably be something like that. It’s a tight squeeze.

  3. 1. If you recall, American’s plan was to squeeze an incredible *172 seats* on its 737 MAX 8 aircraft which will arrive later this year.

    2. After all, there are *still 172 seats *crammed into this tube.

    Seems to be a numerical discrepancy here.

    1. It is still the same number of seats, they just took one row of main cabin extra, converted it to a regular coach row and used that 3 or 4 inches to push the couple of 29 inch rows up to the glorious 30 inches everybody else will have in regular coach.

  4. Hopefully AA splurges for the new “Space Bins”. But then since they’re cramming in additional butts the extra overhead space will really amount to nothing extra..

  5. As an employee of AA who was not involved in any way with the decision, I felt all along that the powers that be were simply raising the flag of “the possibility of some rows with a 29 inch pitch” to see who would salute and who would light the torches of dissent. After reading various blogs about this situation, it became very clear what the consensus was. As one who works on the plane, I’m glad for this “compromise”. As you rightly pointed out, personal space will probably be the same due to thinner seats, so the big question is what the comfort level will be of those seats. Time will tell. Oh, and no video entertainment screen less than a foot from your face either. But my experience on current Airbus (LAA) aircraft is that people love having access to all the videos regardless of the proximity of the screen on main cabin. Let’s hope the streaming entertainment for personal devices provides the same escape!

    1. Who would have possibly supported a 29 inch pitch?

      OTOH if it it was a cynical ploy to make people “happy” with a measly 30 inch pitch then bravo AA, job well done!

  6. If they go back to 31″ then it can be called a victory. I’m just under 6 ft so I’m not too worried about my knees hitting the seat in front of me so much as I am about having the back of the seat in front of me right up in my face. It’s too confining. I’ve been on the new LAA Airbus planes and it’s terrible. I’ve seen many who can’t open the tray tables all the way let alone actually use even a small device on them. I’ve started flying Delta and SW more because of this.

    1. What makes it worse in my opinion is that the legacy carriers keep reducing pitch, but then leave the seat recline untouched. So not only are you crammed in there, but if you get an inconsiderate a-hole in front of you, you lose even more space when they throw their seat back in your lap. At least the Spirits and Frontiers have removed the recline option.

  7. I saw a recent investment presentation (at the Citi Industrials Conference) where United states it’s going with a 166 seat configuration on its 737-800s.

  8. 172 seats on this plane is still a lot. I remember both AA and DL having 150 on a 737-800. They both have 160 these days and it seems tight. Adding an additional two rows seems like a nightmare IMO.

    I’m not a fan of labeling the exit row seats as MCE seats. Sure, they have more legroom, but they come with some responsibilities such as being strong enough to lift 50 pounds and being able to direct people to the exits. Plus, those seats usually have a shorter seat pan and even less padding on the seat than a regular Y seat. I like exit rows because I like extra legroom, but I don’t think they should automatically become MCE seats.

  9. Look on the bright side folks! When the inevitable downturn happens, this will mean tons of extra empty rows that each of us will get to ourselves again!

  10. Southwest 737-800’s & Max8’s = 175 seats
    AA will squeeze F/C, MCE & Y seats in their Max8’s and have 172 seats?

    For me it’s “face room”- the distance between my face and the seat in front of me. And can I open my laptop and read the screen? Never felt claustrophobic before until flying “slim line” Y class.

    1. I know what you mean, I hate looking at the top of someone’s head in my face when they lean all the way back. Seats shouldn’t go back more then an inch, that’s enough to take the pressure off someone’s back and be a bit more comfortable

  11. Only way any of this is going to stop if for travelers to vote with there feet. Fly another carrier when ever possible and let the airline know why.

  12. The worst seat pitch I can recall in recent memory was an AF A321. My knees were jammed in…most of the flight I sat with my legs out in the aisle. On a recent AA flight on an old US Air A321 I thought the pitch was decent, but the AF memory was still fresh. As someone who is 6′-2″ this matters to me…and I’m usually in the back of the bus so it really matters. AA is my “backup” airline so….not sure I can stomach UA….WN?

  13. The fact that 30″ is a victory is sad, still to cramped….the people who make these decision’s are pencil pusher’s who dont fly regularly like normal business people, they arent stuck in a middle seat for 3-4 hrs with your knees on your chest….its all about how much each plane can make per flight, comfort has been gone a long time except for Southwest, the 737-500 had a nice amount of space but they are gone, the -300 still has nice legroom but those are going….id rather fly a -300 than American’s A319….did it once, never again….I felt trapped even in MCE….American’s Max 8 will be another to avoid, curious to see how the seating is on Southwest’s Max 8….time will tell……….when the plane’s make their debut there will be the usual hype, what an amazing new plane, fuel efficient and brings the flying experience to a whole new level, only problem is that level is lower, wafer thin seat’s, lav’s you can’t turn around in, galley space shrinks but the business part is more sest’s mean more money, but more people means longer boarding and trying to get off the plane before your connecting flight leaves….no matter what anyone say’s, its all about ????….these are just my opinion’s

  14. Perhaps British Airways will take heed of their partner and abandon their plans for 29″ pitch – which will put them below Ryanair!

  15. Please refrain from using racial references. It’s clear you are more a ‘foamer’ than true airline employee (former)/expert. If you were up to date on proper etiquette you would know the term “Back of the Bus” is no longer acceptable in today’s environment, and unwelcome. In fact, employees have been disciplined and/or terminated for using such statements.

    “Back of the Bus” may mean one thing for a group of airline employees, but it means something completely different to another group of people. It’s oppressive, it’s racial, and it’s inappropriate to use that term!

    As far as sitting on “coach” or “main cabin” (as AA calls it), I’ll continue to fly the ULCCs!

  16. We the passengers still need to communicate to the airlines that until they provide seats wide enough and pitched well enough, we will consider air travel a necessary evil. They compete for ratings with deceitful surveys which don’t allow you to give a truthful response. I don’t care about free wine on transatlantic flights, Wifi is a pleasant extra that in unimportant, but I want a decent seat!

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