A Cranky Jackass Award for American’s 737 MAX Torture Chamber

Unlike many of you, I’ve been a fan of traditional airlines increasing density on airplanes over the years. It made sense to me: provide a basic level of comfort and then give people affordable options to buy up if they care. For those who don’t, well, it’ll mean a lower fare. But the key to that proposition is that you have to provide a basic level of comfort (unlike the ultra low cost carriers which provide a basic level of discomfort). The legacy airlines have pushed that boundary, and though many will disagree, I still felt that the line hadn’t been crossed… until now.

American takes delivery of its first 737 MAX 8 later this year, and the airline is starting to leak some details about the configuration. Though I obviously haven’t sat on the aircraft, I believe this proposed configuration with 172 seats crosses that line. And for that, I’m bringing back an old friend. Here’s your Cranky Jackass Award, American.

I had heard whispers of this dense configuration, but it wasn’t until I saw the that I finally believed it. Now I’ve had the chance to talk with American to get as much as I could out of the airline, which isn’t all that much.

The 737 MAX 8 has the same size cabin as the 737-800. Today, American has 16 First Class seats, 30 Main Cabin Extra, and 114 Main Cabin seats on the latter airplane for a total of 160 seats. This is already more dense than its previous configuration, but it doesn’t bother me. This allowed American to put a good number of Main Cabin Extra seats while keeping seat pitch in the back at 31 inches. I’ve flown it many times and have had no issues. But the jump from 160 to 172 seats is going to be a different story.

The idea that American can put that many seats on the airplane is crazy for a traditional airline. Look no further than a Southwest 737 to see why. Southwest has on its 737-800s, and will have on its MAX 8s, 175 seats in an all-coach configuration, a mere 3 seats more than American with its multiple cabins. This isn’t an exact seat map, but this explains the basic idea in a nutshell.

Southwest has 32 inches of pitch on this airplane, and if you’ve flown on it, you know that it feels pretty spacious everywhere. I say that as someone who is 5 feet 8 inches. Are you tall? You have no choice to buy more legroom. Do you want a premium cabin? Not on this airline. It is what it is: comfortable transport for the masses.

What American has done, on the other hand, is look at this airplane, measure it out, and say, “how can we stuff as many peasants as possible in the back without pissing off our most frequent fliers?” For the frequent fliers, there will still be 16 First Class seats and there will even be an increase of Main Cabin Extra seats to 36. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see them lose an inch in pitch, but it’s still a nice ride.)

So the space allocated to these more premium offerings will increase. How will this be offset? Well, the use of space-saving lavs and probably a reduction in galley space (though I haven’t confirmed the latter) will help to free up room. But it’s still not enough. Coach gets hit hard.

Seat pitch in coach drops from 31 to 30 inches in most rows with 3 rows going down even further, but I’ll get to that later. If you’ve flown on a legacy American A319, you’ve experienced the relative pain of 30 inches of pitch, but seat pitch is an imperfect metric since it’s just the distance from one point on a seat to the same point on the seat behind. As seats get thinner, you can reduce pitch but still maintain the same amount of legroom. Those A319s have in-seat video screens. Get rid of those, as American will do on the MAX, and the seat gets thinner. This helps with legroom, and you’ll hear American crow about that. But legroom isn’t everything.

I’ve sat in some of these seats before on several airlines, and the one thing that really stands out is that the seat in front of you is really, really close to your face. Remember, to get you more legroom, airlines have moved the seatback pockets up higher so they’re at eye level. It feels more claustrophobic, and it has a real impact on comfort. Thirty inch seat pitch is, to me, at the border of what’s acceptable. But once you get below that, you’ve gone to the dark side.

And to the dark side American has gone. To squeeze that last row in, American is actually going to have to give 3 rows only 29 inches of pitch. These rows will be scattered as needed through the aircraft, my guess is 1 in front of the exit with 2 somewhere behind. Contrary to what you might think would be sensible, these won’t be for Basic Economy customers. These will just be considered regular coach seats that really, really suck.

Twenty-nine inches is the domain of ultra low cost carriers like Spirit. Actually, you’ll see 28 inches on many of them. But those are airlines where people expect to feel the pain in exchange for a cheap fare. If I fly Spirit, I know what I’m getting, and I’ve done it. It’s not comfortable, but that’s ok. When a legacy airline puts out a similar product, it’s different. The differentiation that has already eroded so much evaporates even further. To me, 30 inch pitch was the red line.

The timing of all of this couldn’t have been worse. Congresspeople are busy stepping over each other to get jabs in at the airline industry at hearings on the Hill. Many have given warnings that if the airlines don’t shape up, then Congress will act. That’s the worst thing that can happen, yet here we are with another negative story.

Were I American, I’d look at the math and say, you know, maybe we should be ok with 166 seats on this airplane. That’s still more than our wildest dreams a few years ago. But instead, the airline is getting greedy. Others are likely to follow (at least, United is apparently studying it), so now seems like the right time to make my feelings clear. This is going too far, and it deserves the Cranky Jackass Award.

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