I’m sure American Airlines wasn’t thinking about the 737-800 when they put the ad telling you to rate the seat on Tripit into the seat back pocket. If they were, they might have tried a little harder to make sitting in one of their seats a less miserable experience. I can’t put my finger on exactly what made the seat feel as bad as it did. Was it the narrow seat width? Maybe it was the seat pitch (distance from the seat in front). It could have been we were already in a bad mood after having to deal with surly gate agents trying to check as many carry on bags as possible, even if they were the correct size.
I did some checking on narrow body jets we’ve flown on this year and American’s 737-8 ranks towards the bottom of seat comfort metrics, but not the worst. So why did American seem so much worse than it looks on paper and how could they make it any worse?
This one is easy to explain. It’s the distance between the armrests of a single seat. Here’s the list of planes we’ve been on this year.
- American 737-8 – 16.9 – 17.3 inches
- Delta A320 – 17.2 inches
- Delta A321 – 18 inches
- Delta 737-9 – 17.2 inches
- Frontier A320 – 18 inches
- JetBlue A320 – 17.8 inches
- Southwest 737-7 – 17 inches
- Southwest 737-8 – 17 inches
An extra 1/2 inch can make a difference when it comes to how close you are sitting to your neighbor. Since most narrow body jets are pretty much the same (because the plane is only so wide), what about the seat pitch?
That’s another way to say legroom but since that’s a relative term, here’s the definition of seat pitch: “The distance between two rows of seats, this is the best indicator of legroom. More is better.”
- American 737-8 – 31 inches
- Delta A320 – 31-32 inches
- Delta A321 – 31 inches
- Delta 737-9 – 30-31 inches
- Frontier A320 – 28-29 inches
- JetBlue A320 – 34 inches
- Southwest 737-7 – 31 inches
- Southwest 737-8 – 32-33 inches
Frontier offers, by far, the least space but the seats on their planes are “pre-reclined,” meaning you can’t recline them. Some airlines went to “slimline seats” which give the feeling of more legroom in less space but achieve this by removing padding from the seats. When on a flight with these seats, I have to put a pillow behind my back or I start to get back pains within 30 minutes.
Here’s the difference between JetBlue’s 34 inch seat pitch and Frontier’s 29 inches.
So if American’s seats weren’t the narrowest or the least legroom, what made them seem so bad? I think it was the combination of an expectation of comfort and a claustrophobic design. You know it’s tight when even Sharon (who is only about 4’7″) says the seat felt small.
By giving a tray table and having WiFi on board, there’s an assumption that you can actually get work done. The seat in front of me wasn’t even reclined and I couldn’t fully open my laptop to see the screen.
Here’s how I had to set up the computer so I could work. Typing like a T-Rex gets old really quickly.
On Frontier’s smaller seats, they don’t even give you a tray table, it’s more of a shelf.
What makes this different is that Frontier is a Low Cost Airline. They don’t offer WiFi on their flights. With no expectation of getting any work done, I wasn’t frustrated; I already knew what I was getting.
Can It Get Any Worse?
You bet it can. American had rolled out the new 737-MAX planes with only 30 inches of seat pitch. They claimed the seats actually have more legroom because they’re now slimline seats. American had removed the seat back entertainment, instead opting for a media holder (BYOD, Bring Your Own Device) and a USB power plug. With the new decreased seat pitch, it would be impossible to watch a laptop so they removed the power plugs as well. Granted, the 737-MAX planes are all grounded at this time, but American already said they were going to retrofit all of their 737-800 fleet to match the 737-MAX. Knowing now what the 737 experience on American is like, I’ll have to compare them to other airlines just on price and not on comfort. It also doesn’t help that now if you are delayed, American won’t rebook you onto another airline unless you’re an elite. If that’s the case, I might as well be on Southwest or Frontier.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary