Cramped airline seats are a top complaint of air travelers these days. Now, passengers may soon have even more to complain about on some American Airlines flights.
The USA’s biggest carrier will reduce legroom by up two inches in the economy cabin of its new Boeing 737 MAX jets that will begin arriving to the airline later this year.
That’s according to CNN, which was the first to report the news. The network adds United is said to be considering a similar change, "according to a person briefed on its evaluations.” United declined to comment to CNN.
As for the details of the changes at American, the “seat pitch” – a standard industry measure of the space between the same spot between two seats – will shrink from the current 31 inches to 30 inches throughout most of the economy cabin on the company's new 737 MAX planes. Three rows of the plane will have an even bigger reduction, with the space shrinking from 31 inches to 29 inches. Those rows will be the last two on the aircraft as well as one other row closer to the front.
American tells CNN the tighter seating configuration may also be extended to its existing 737-800 plans, but says it has not yet decided.
“With the change,” writes CNN’s Jon Ostrower, “American will become the first large U.S. carrier to offer legroom with a pitch that's nearly on par with ultra-low cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines. Those seats are an industry minimum 28-inches apart.”
CNN compares that to the USA’s other big airlines, noting average seat pitch at Delta and United ranges from 30 inches to 31 inches. The nation’s other large carriers – Alaska Airlines, JetBlue and Southwest – have pitches ranging from 31 inches to 33 inches, according to CNN.
Also smaller on American’s new 737s will be the lavatories, CNN said, citing “one person familiar with the planning.”
Overall, American’s 737 MAX jets will seat 170 passengers, CNN reported, citing “two sources.” American’s current 737-800 aircraft seat 160. For the MAX aircraft, CNN’s sources say American will keep 16 first-class seats and maintain its roomier “Main Cabin Extra” seating area.
News of the change comes as U.S. airlines have spent much of the past month under scrutiny for how they treat their customers in the wake of a high-profile passenger dragging incident. That April 9 incident on United Express Flight 3411 has put the entire industry under the spotlight.
On Tuesday, executives from United and other big airlines endured a grilling in front of Congress. Lawmakers threatened to legislate customer-service requirements if the airlines don’t voluntarily make improvements on their own.
As the new tighter-seat 737s begin flying for American, industry observers will keep watch to see if other traditional full-service airlines follow American’s lead. Historically, big airlines have watched to see how such changes at rivals are received by customers; in the end, though, most carriers have matched policies adopted by their rivals.
For example, American was the first to begin charging for checked bags in 2008 – a groundbreaking move at the time that some predicted would provoke a backlash from customers. Today, Southwest is alone among U.S. airlines in allowing all customers to check a bag without a fee.
At least one analyst questioned American’s timing for its latest move, noting the overall industry has enjoyed record profits in recent years.
"This is one of the best economic environments the U.S. airline industry has seen in decades," Henry Harteveldt, founder of the Atmosphere Research Group, said to the network. "There is no need to race to the bottom."