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Economy Class Legroom: How Low Can It Go?

It’s ironic that word leaked out this week about American Airlines’ plans to reduce seat pitch on some of its new single-aisle aircraft. Ironic because it’s the same week that the House Transportation Committee held hearings in Washington about U.S. airlines’ poor treatment of passengers– and the possibility of regulating airline seating was discussed.

CNN said it learned that American plans to stuff more seats into its new 737 MAX aircraft by reducing seat pitch from the standard 31 inches to a tight 29 inches on three rows in the economy cabin, and to 30 inches on the rest. The report said United Airlines “is considering a similar move.”

According to the CNN report, 40 of the 100 737 MAX aircraft ordered by American are expected to join the fleet by the end of 2019, and the airline is reportedly thinking about reconfiguring economy seating in its older 737-800s to match the new planes.

“As the big airlines match each other move for move, the risk is that 29 inches becomes the standard (seat pitch) for flying economy in the United States,” CNN said.

Frequent travelers know that an inch or two of more (or less) legroom can make a big difference in comfort, and if the legacy carriers were to reduce that number, they risk losing one of their main advantages over ultra-low-cost carriers.

Among the major airlines, seat pitches on single-aisle domestic aircraft generally range from 30 to 32 inches. Almost all airlines offer extra legroom seats with 34-36 inches of legroom for elite level members of frequent flyer programs or those who pay higher fares.

According to Seatguru.com, American offers 31-inch pitch on its 737-800s in economy class, and pitches of 30-31 inches on A319s, 31 on A320s and 31-32 on A321s. Delta’s economy pitch is 30-31 inches on 737-900s, and 31-32 inches on 737-800s and single-aisle Airbus planes. At United, 737-800s and -900s offer 30-31 inch pitch. Alaska’s 737-800s have 31-32 inches and 737-900s have from 31 to as much as 35 inches.

JetBlue appears to be the most generous, with economy class legroom ranging from 32-33 inches on A321s to 34 inches on A320s. Southwest’s standard pitch is 31 inches on 737-700s and 32-33 on 737-800s. At Virgin America, economy seat pitch is 32 inches on A319s and 320s.

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