Sky Talk

Get ready to squeeze: American cutting legroom on new 737s

American Airlines currently has 31 inches of pitch, or distance between seats, on its Boeing 737-800s.
American Airlines currently has 31 inches of pitch, or distance between seats, on its Boeing 737-800s.

American Airlines is about to give coach passengers even less legroom.

The Fort Worth-based company will shrink the space between most rows to 30 inches on its newest Boeing 737 jetliners, spokesman Joshua Freed said Wednesday. That’s an inch less than on its existing 737-800 planes. At least three rows on the new 737 Max jets will have only 29 inches, moving the world’s largest carrier closer to deep discounters such as Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines.

American’s effort marks the latest push by U.S. airlines to cram more passengers onto each plane by using new, slimmer seat designs that are supposed to maximize room for a passenger’s knees even as rows move closer together. America’s newest contribution to the so-called “densification trend” will begin in the third quarter when the carrier takes delivery of its first 737 Max planes.

“These are well-designed seats built for this kind of a layout,” Freed said in an interview. “We believe we’re still providing a good product for customers.”

Freed declined to identify which rows will have the least legroom. The Max will have 172 seats, including 36 in Main Cabin Extra, a higher-priced option with more legroom than the rest of the coach section. American will receive four of the narrow-body 737 Max planes this year and 16 in 2018. It has 100 on order with Boeing.

The change may signal that American is ready to challenge the super-discount airlines for customers rather than battle with Delta Air Lines over business travelers, said Alan Bender of Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Having more seats means American can sell more lower-priced tickets.

“They may be choosing to play hardball with the ultra-low-cost carriers,” Bender said in an interview. “If you’re not getting extra revenue from business fliers, you have to get more money from people flying in economy, and you can’t get more from people flying in economy unless you put in more seats.”

American is considering similar changes for any new 737-800 planes, Freed said. The airline raised the seat count on its 737-800s to 160 from 150 starting in 2015. It also had increased seats on its wide-body 777-200 jets to 289 from 247.

“Just like every airline, with every new plane you look to have an efficient layout that makes use of the space on board and provides customers a good product,” he said. “There is some variability today on many fleets within coach cabins at our airline and others.”

The Max will retain a first-class cabin with 16 seats, and an unspecified number of Main Cabin Extra seats with added legroom. The 10 seats with less legroom won’t be part of American’s Basic Economy fare, which comes at a lower price but no extras like assigned seats.