American Cutting Legroom in Economy on New 737s

As reported by CNN Money, American Airlines announced that it will go from 160 to more than 170 seats in its new Boeing 737-MAX 8 fleet. In order to fit all of these new seats they will be cutting down the pitch (distance between the backs of each seat) on its new fleet by as much as two inches. Three rows will be knocked down from 31 inches to 29 inches while the remaining rows will go down from 31 inches to 30 inches. In addition, they’re somehow going to find a way to shrink the size of the lavatory, too.

This move puts American economy much closer to the low cost carriers in terms of legroom offered. Both Spirit and Frontier have about 28 inches of pitch so those three rows on American’s new 737s will be very close to what you’d experience on a Spirit flight. The move to 30 inches moves below the domestic standard of many airlines which is about 31 inches and well below what some other airlines like JetBlue offer (34 and 33 inches).

This (oversimplified) graphic from CNN can give you an idea on the different pitches found in economy on major US airlines.

It’s interesting to me that Southwest is going the opposite direction with their new 737-MAX fleet. They’re actually increasing the width of their seats on the new aircraft by .7 inches and the pitch will be at 32 inches. That’s definitely enough to keep me comfortable for a short-haul flight.

According to CNN, American will have 40 737 MAX aircrafts by the end of 2019 and they have 100 on order. All of these aircrafts will still have 36 “Main Cabin Extra” premium economy seats and 16 first class/business seats.


I don’t think the drop from 31″ to 30″ is a catastrophic change but it is more evidence of the legacy carriers’ “race to the bottom” where airlines are on a constant hunt to see how much less they can offer to passengers while still maximizing their profits.

It’s good to see that some airlines like Southwest and JetBlue aren’t headed in that direction. And even though I despise Delta’s award program, they are still offering 31″ to 32″ of pitch in economy.

These changes are also coming at the same time we’re seeing American, Delta, and United roll out Basic Economy fares. These are fares which cost less than economy fares but force you to pay extra for things like seat selections (even family seating together) and carry-ons.

Many aren’t happy about these Basic Economy fares because in many instances we’ve seen that their prices are exactly what you would’ve paid for the previous lowest economy fare. In other words, you’re still paying the same price you would’ve paid for the cheapest economy seat but now you’re losing the basic benefits like being able to select your seat and bring a carry-on (Delta allows you to being on a carry-on on free of charge).

So we’re seeing a drop in benefits but not in prices (at least no across the board) and now we’re seeing a reduction in pitch and a much more cramped passenger experience being offered by American (even when visiting the lavatory). And what’s worse is that it’s rumored that United will be next to follow with these less roomy economy sections on the 737-MAX.

Let’s just hope that these reductions stay, for the most part, at 30″ and don’t venture closer to the industry minimum at 28″ like we see with the low cost carriers. In the meantime, I’ll happily be sticking with Southwest for non-first class domestic travel.

Cover photo by ERIC SALARD via Flickr