A day after airline executives went before lawmakers to defend their customer service, American Airlines confirmed Wednesday it will shrink the distance between economy seats in some new planes — but don't accuse the carrier of cutting legroom.
The distance between the back of one seat and the back of the next — known as the "pitch" in industry jargon — will be 30 inches for most of the economy seats on the 737-Max jet the carrier will start flying this year, American Airlines representatives said. For three rows in the economy section, the distance will be 29 inches.
For comparison, the distance on similar-sized Boeing 737-800 jets American currently operates is 31 inches.
With seat backs closer together, does that mean your legs will have less room to stretch out?
Doing the math on legroom
American Airlines spokesman Joshua Freed said the carrier doesn't measure legroom, which it considers a subjective experience that varies with the length of each passenger's legs.
Instead, he said, the carrier is able to shrink the distance between seat backs — the "pitch" measurement standard the industry prefers — because they are thinner on the 737-Max. That should minimize the effect on passenger limbs, Freed said.
"It still provides a good experience for people," he said.
American's current Boeing 737-800 jets carry 160 seats. Freed said the airline doesn't know how many seats will fit in the 737-Max.
Southwest Airlines will begin operating the 737-Max on Oct. 1, and it will have a 32-inch pitch on all seats.
A seat comparison last year on ThePointsGuy.com, a website that tracks airline loyalty programs and other perks, called a 29-inch pitch "miserable," while a 34-inch pitch is "super comfy." JetBlue's A320 planes offer a 34-inch pitch on all seats, the site noted.
American's seat-distance plans were first reported by CNN.
The Fort Worth-based carrier plans to take possession of 100 737-Max jets over the next five years, starting with four jets this year.
The news comes shortly after U.S. lawmakers told executives from some airlines, including American, that the government would intervene if the airlines did not improve customer service on their own.
During Tuesday's four-hour hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, lawmakers sharply questioned airline executives on issues including overbooking policies and competition within the airline industry, as well as simplifying the complex language of "contracts of carriage."
At one point in the hearing, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) berated American Airlines for relying on a regional carrier that uses what he described as "buses with propellers."
"Why do you use Air Wisconsin and put passengers in those teeny, tiny, awful seats with the — probably the worst pitch, worse than Spirit, and the worst width? Why do you use those?" he asked, referring to Spirit Airlines, which offers some seats with a pitch of 28 inches.
Kerry Philipovitch, American's senior vice president for customer experience, apologized, saying: "We're working to improve and standardize the experience our customers have, regardless of who operates the flight, when they buy an American ticket."
After learning Wednesday of American's plan to shrink the seat pitch on some jets, Cohen said that it seems "like the entire message of yesterday's hearing was lost on the airline industry."
He added that Congress should consider a proposal by passenger rights advocates to adopt a minimum standard seat size for all U.S. carriers.
"Seat size is not just about comfort; it is about the safety and health of the flying public," Cohen said.
The Washington, D.C., hearing followed several highly publicized problems on airlines, including the April incident in which a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was violently removed from a United Airlines flight after he refused to give up his seat so an airline employee could have it. Last week, United reached a settlement with Dao.
Last month, American Airlines removed a flight attendant from duty after he got into a verbal confrontation with a passenger after he took a stroller away from a different passenger.
During her opening remarks in Tuesday's hearing, Philipovitch told the committee that "recent incidents have been interpreted by some as evidence that customer service is broken in the airline industry. There is no question we can do better, but we are making progress."