In spite of renewed attention on U.S. airlines being hellscapes for consumers, American Airlines is working on making the experience of flying with them a little bit worse. Do you like space for your knees while being cooped up in a flying metal tube for a few hours? Too bad!

American Airlines was the first airline to roll out baggage fees in 2008. We all know how that worked out for the rest of the airline industry.

We also know that airline seats have been getting progressively smaller over time as the airlines continue to try and squeeze more people into the same size planes. This has happened in both width of seats, and the distance between rows, known as seat pitch.

Remember when you got on a single aisle, narrow body plane like a 737, and it had 5 seats in each row, and each seat was wide enough to accommodate a normal sized human adult? Ah, those were the days. But now basically every airline has 6-across seating in those same single aisle, narrow body planes. Hope you like touching arms with your neighbor for the duration of your flight!


American has a new generation of Boeing 737 Max planes on order, and to maximize the number of seats on the plane, the seat pitch on these new planes will shrink from American’s current economy standard of 31 inches, to 30 inches, and 29 inches in 3 rows. Oh, and when you go to pick a seat (which is becoming a less-frequent experience as now when you go to buy flights you are more often stuck with a “basic economy” fare where your seat is assigned when you arrive at the gate) you won’t know which 3 rows have the 29 inch pitch, and those rows will cost the same as the other 30 inch pitch rows.


As usual, you can get more legroom (a.k.a. enough room for a normal sized human adult, a.k.a. the legroom you used to get with a normal economy ticket) by spending something like $30 each way for an “economy plus” seat.


American is considering making the change on the rest of its existing fleet of 737s, and United is also considering a similar move. Great.

Here is the range of standard, non-upgrade seat pitch on U.S. airlines’ single aisle, narrow body planes, in inches:


Alaska - 31-36
American - 31-34
Delta - 31-34
Frontier - 28
JetBlue - 32-34
Southwest - 31-33
Spirit - 28
United - 30-31
Virgin - 32

I’m 5’11” with relatively short legs for my height, and I can tell you from experience with an AirTran 28”-pitch seat from before they were bought by Southwest, that experience was miserable. I usually have just enough room with a 31” pitch. I flew on a Delta 757 recently, and the configuration I think it was lists 31-33” seat pitch in economy. I must have had the high end of that range because for a regular economy seat it was gloriously adequate legroom. Such is the state of flying that being able to freely move one’s knees and enter and exit your row to go to the bathroom is now a “luxury.”


If history with baggage fees is any indication, we’ll start seeing that 29-30” base seat pitch on more and more domestic flights, the overwhelming majority of which are flown with these narrow body, single aisle planes.

Have fun in the friendly skies, folks! You’ll need all the help you can get.