Skift Take

We'll reserve judgement until we try the seats. Maybe American has developed a special seat that makes passengers feel as if they have more legroom than they do. But that's probably unlikely. American's passengers should prepare for a squeeze.

United States airline passengers have had a lot to complain about in the past three weeks, but they can soon add one more thing to the list: Later this year, American Airlines will give some passengers nearly as little legroom as some of the most aggressive discount airlines.

An American spokesman said Tuesday that the carrier’s Boeing 737 Max jets, the first of which should arrive later this year, will have only 30 inches of seat pitch in most coach seats, giving passengers an inch less space than in the airline’s older model 737s.

Worse, “up to three rows” will have 29-inch pitch, roughly equivalent to what ultra-low-cost carriers, including Frontier Airlines, give passengers. Except for the discounters — they generally have 28 or 29 inches of pitch — U.S. airlines have been reluctant to shrink standard pitch below 30 inches. (Pitch is the distance from any spot on a seat to the same place on the seat in front of it.)

American did not say how it will decide which passengers sit in the rows with the least legroom. But the spokesman said passengers will hardly notice having less room.

“The seats we’ll use on the MAX are designed to maximize personal living space, while allowing more comfort, even in arrangement like this where the pitch is a little tighter,” the spokesman said. American has placed 100 firm orders for the jets.

The seat news was first reported by Jon Ostrower of CNN. The CNN story said United Airlines is considering a similar change on some planes. United now offers 30 to 31 inches of pitch in most coach seats.

CNN reported that the new configuration will allow American to install at least 10 more seats than on the 300 737s already in its fleet. American declined to share the exact 737 Max seat count with Skift, but the carrier’s spokesman said the new 737s will retain 16 first class seats. American will also keep some seats with extra legroom for frequent flyers and travelers who pay extra.

The American spokesman said the airline is considering “something similar” for the older 737s. They now have 160 seats, or 10 more than American had on the aircraft before it merged with US Airways. Just after the merger, new management quickly added seats.

Industry-wide Emphasis

Adding seats has been a priority for most U.S. airlines in recent years, with carriers generally arguing that by offering more seats, they can lower their costs for each one, and sell cheaper tickets.

Airlines have gotten creative by shrinking bathrooms, and galleys, but in most cases, they have to reduce legroom, too. Even JetBlue Airways, which has long offered more space than the competition, is reducing pitch on its A320s and A321s. Still, even after its retrofits, JetBlue will still have roughly 32 inches of seat pitch in regular economy.

American’s changes should not come as a surprise. Last week, on the carrier’s first quarter earnings call, President Robert Isom suggested American soon would be adding seats to some planes.

“We think that we have some density issues with our narrow body fleet that we will be addressing in the coming years as well that I think will have benefits in terms of overall revenue production and also will help us from a unit cost perspective as well,” Isom said.

Still, while it makes good business sense, lawmakers and consumer advocates may not like American’s decision, which became public the same day a U.S. House of Representatives Committee held a hearing on airline customer service. Many lawmakers blasted airlines, saying they must start responding to passengers complaints, or Congress might act to place more regulations on the industry.


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Tags: american airlines, paxex

Photo credit: An American Boeing 737 pictured in 2012. American is adding seats to its newest Boeing 737 model, called the 737 Max. Grant Wickes / Flickr

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