Legroom shrinks in American Airlines' economy class

Seat05
An American Airlines passenger jet takes off from Miami International Airport.

You know those cramped airline seats in the economy cabin? They're getting squeezed — again.

On 100 new Boeing 737 Max jets that American Airlines has ordered, the “pitch” — the front-to-back space between rows — will shrink by 2 inches, from 31 to 29, for three rows. The rest of the rows in economy class will be reduced to 30 inches from 31.

The move, which will give American 12 more seats on the aircraft, comes as airlines are on the hot seat this week on Capitol Hill, including a hearing Thursday by a U.S. Senate Transportation subcommittee, because of customer service after a United Airlines passenger was dragged off a flight in Chicago last month.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans apologized Thursday for security officers’ forced removal of United passenger David Dao on April 9. Evans said the officers broke from standard operating procedure, which calls for use of force only when “absolutely necessary to protect the security and safety” of passengers.

Effective April 10, Chicago airport security officers no longer board aircraft  except for “an immediate medical issue or imminent physical threat on board," Evans said. “This was an aberrant situation; we know of nothing like it in our records.” Three officers and one supervisor in the episode have been suspended.

“There are larger issues here, and they’re not just about United,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), a subcommittee member. “Passengers feel like they’re being treated as self-loading cargo. We have all experienced firsthand or heard from our folks back home about an explosion of fees for services,  airline I.T. systems failing and causing prolonged confusion and delay.

“And adding insult to injury,” Nelson said, “American Airlines is slashing legroom in its new Boeing 737 jets to squeeze more passengers on its planes. While these are certainly not new complaints, they seem to be getting worse in the public’s eye.”

With the news that American, which has a hub in Philadelphia, plans to add 12 seats to a plane that now has 160, Brett Snyder, author of the CrankyFlier.com, wrote in a blog post that the idea was "crazy."

The 29-inch-seat pitch "is the domain of ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit,” Snyder said.   

Frontier and Spirit aircraft have the least amount of legroom at 28 inches. Virgin America, JetBlue, and Alaska have the most in economy class, between 31 and 32 inches, according to SeatGuru, a website that has aircraft seat maps and seat reviews.

When flying Spirit and Frontier, “people expect to feel the pain in exchange for a cheap fare," Snyder said.  But when a “legacy" airline such as American puts out a similar product, it’s different, he said, noting that the timing “couldn’t have been worse,” with lawmakers warning that “if the airlines don’t shape up, then Congress will act."

“Were I American, I’d look at the math and say, you know, maybe we should be OK with 166 seats on this airplane," Snyder wrote on his blog. "But instead, the airline is getting greedy. Others are likely to follow (at least, United is apparently studying it)."

A spokesman for American said the first 737 Max jets, a new version of the Boeing 737-800, will arrive in the fall, with more to come next year.

Though most economy seats on the new plane will have a 30-inch pitch, three rows will be at 29 inches. “We haven’t said what rows. We’re keeping some flexibility,” said American spokesman Josh Freed. The current 737-800 jetliners have 31 inches of legroom in economy class.  The new 737s will still have 16 first-class seats, and there will be some seats in the coach cabin with extra legroom for travelers who pay extra.

If there is any silver lining, the overhead bins in the new 737s will be larger than in older 737s, Freed said.  Also, the seat width will remain the same.

“I’m told they actually feel a little wider when you are sitting in them,” Freed said. “A good design gets you a little bit of extra room.”

Continue Reading