American Draws the Line at 29-Inch-Pitch Coach Seats

Of course you want more legroom, but are you willing to pay a little more to get it?

When it was reported, last month, that American planned to equip its new B737 Max planes with seats as crushingly close as those found on such ultra-low-cost carriers as Spirit and Frontier, the blowback from travelers and the media was immediate and fiercely negative.

Specifically, American’s plans called for 30 inches of pitch (the distance between seats) throughout most of the coach-class cabin, with three rows dropping to an even more knee-scraping 29 inches.

For context, the industry average is between 31 and 32 inches, itself a test of flyers’ pain thresholds, especially on longer flights. American’s current fleet of B737s, for instance, features 31 inches of pitch in the coach cabin.

However, as reported in the Dallas News, American has reconsidered its seating plan in light of “a lot of feedback from both customers and team members.”

An internal company memo (apparently leaked to the press, to mitigate the damage?) reads in part as follows:

It is clear that today, airline customers feel increasingly frustrated by their experiences and less valued when they fly. We can be leaders in helping to turn around that perception, and that includes reviewing decisions that have significant impact on the flying experience.

Lest you interpret those seemingly hopeful words as a grand commitment on American’s part to resisting and perhaps reversing the industry trend toward ever-declining legroom, it turns out that most of the coach seating layout in the new B737s will remain as originally planned. All that’s changed are those three rows of 29-inch-pitch seats; they’re no longer part of the plan.

So, in the end, it’s a small step forward after two steps back for American flyers, and for air travelers generally, whose personal space remains under attack by airlines that put profits ahead of passengers.

Forecast: No Gain, More Pain

The reversal of American’s plan to incorporate 29-inch-pitch into its fleet is a rarity, and shouldn’t give travelers much hope that their needs and wants, no matter how avidly expressed, will slow the airlines’ drive to shoehorn ever more seats into their cabins. Travelers themselves must assume part of the blame for their own deteriorating comfort, as they’ve proven stubbornly unwilling to look beyond low prices when booking their flights. As explained by United’s chief, Scott Kirby, at a recent meeting with employees covered by Skift,

Seat pitch has come down. But seat pitch has come down because that’s what customers voted with their wallets that they wanted. I know everyone would tell you, ‘I would like more seat pitch.’ But the history in the airline industry is every time airlines put more seat pitch on, customers choose the lowest price.

Which amounts to a rephrasing of one of the eternal verities of economics: You get what you pay for.

Reader Reality Check

Once again, are you willing to pay a little more to get a little more legroom?

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.