Coming from American: Less Comfort Throughout Coach

The past month was the worst for the airlines in recent memory.

Images of a bloodied passenger, a manhandled mother, and a mishandled-to-death giant bunny were splashed all over the media, accompanied by editorials excoriating the airlines.  So bad was it that earlier this week, Congress held the first of what could be several hearings to determine what’s gone wrong with the country’s airlines, and what can be done to fix them.

With so much negative attention focused on them, you’d think the airlines might give travelers a break, at least temporarily, until Congress and the media turn their attention elsewhere. You know, for the optics. But no. In the battle between good P.R. and good profits, the latter trumps the former.

The latest assault on travelers’ dignity and comfort comes from the airline that once boasted “More Room Throughout Coach,” American Airlines. That was in 2000, and three years later, American scrapped its roomy seating initiative, reverting to the mean, which meant returning seat pitch (the distance between seats) to the industry average of around 31 or 32 inches.

Now, as reported by Skift, American is planning to offer only 30 inches of pitch on its new B737 Max planes; and in three rows, the pitch will drop even further, to a paltry 29 inches. That’s the same legroom available on ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier, and is understood as the sacrifice flyers make in order to enjoy the very lowest airfares.

A similar seat squeeze is under consideration for American’s older B737s, which already received more seats following the American-US Airways merger.

American claims that the additional density will be barely noticeable, because the new seats will be the latest so-called slimline design, which uses less padding in the seat back to allow the fitment of more seats in the same space. Of course, less padding means less comfort; and more seats mean more claustrophobia. Which explains why slimline seats are widely known by a less flattering name: crusher seats.

American’s move is hardly a one-off; it’s part of an industry-wide trend to maximize profit at the expense of flyers’ comfort. Even JetBlue, which still boasts the most coach legroom, has been pushing seats closer together.

Average coach legroom has decreased by 10 percent over the past 20 years, from 34 inches to between 30 and 32 inches, even as the average height, weight, and girth of flyers have all increased. Meanwhile, the airlines are flying fuller than ever, with load factors averaging more than 80 percent even during the lowest-demand months.

As the world’s largest airline, American’s lead is likely to be followed by other airlines. Unfortunately for travelers, it’s leading in the wrong direction.

Reader Reality Check

How much crushing can you take?

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and almost that long writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

This article first appeared on, where Tim is Editor-at-Large.

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  1. Herb Spencer says

    This blows big time, and in the largest way. Though I’m a free marketeer and generally opposed to excessive regulations on local, state, and federal levels, we’ve reached the point where federal legislation is required to ensure that passengers’ health and safety is not compromised by these impositions. Blood clots are serious stuff, and “getting up and moving about” is not a realistic option where it’s practically impossible to do so. Moreover, evacuation standards and tests need to be reworked, to ensure that they address real world situations, not lab engineered ones where false results are obtained. Look to it, Congress!

  2. Vicki Sharp says

    The merger between AA and US Air has had the worst possible outcome for customers. By keeping the USAir leadership, AA has lowered standards on everything from seat comfort, to First Class services. I fly almost every week, and can spot an AA trained vs a USAir trained flight attendant in seconds.

    The worst decision lately is to create another class of frequent flyer status. Those of us who have flown millions of miles (almost 4 million for me), were “demoted” virtually overnight. As a lifetime Platinum, upgrades were fairly common, but now that the new Platinum Pro has been introduced, not so much. If AA really wanted to show their appreciation for the many years of flying with them, they should have “promoted” all lifetime status earners to the next level, meaning a lifetime Platinum should have become lifetime Platinum Pro, and lifetime Gold should have become Lifetime Platinum.

    Instead, it’s like AA just said “Sucks to be you” to all of us who have spent decades of time, and hundreds of thousands on tickets over the year. They know we probably won’t switch airline loyalty with so much history, but where’s the loyalty to us?

  3. SST says

    Tim, for those of us awake enough ‘back when’, the “Less Comfort Throughout Coach” title was a true laugh. Thanks for brightening up my day! For those who are new to business travel, about 15 years ago it was suggested that the problem with airline profitability was too much capacity. American Airlines went on a “permanent” (it lasted about a year) campaign to remove seats and advertised far and wide “More Room Throughout Coach!” and it really, really was good for passengers. United countered with Premium Economy for elites, as did several other airlines.

    Of course, immediately bean counters within and stock analysts outside American laid into the managements and especially American, with a vengeance, since there were more people who could be paying fares (they imagined), and the whole thing got reversed in a matter of months once the seat removal was completed. MRTC is now a dirty word across AA. But it was the first positive and humane thing that’s been done for coach flyers in many a year.

    Imagine an era when flying coach was actually pretty comfortable! You got a meal, no matter how people laughed at institutionally-prepared food! You encountered an empty middle seat about half the time! They actually blocked the middle seat for Elites sitting in aisle or window, unless capacity required their use! RJ’s and prop planes only served true backwater airports, not places with jetways. And believe it or not, it felt like MOST of the airline staff were happy at work.

    Welcome to the Race to the Bottom.

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