A First Look Inside American Airlines’ Boeing 737 MAX 8

Nov 29, 2017

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The Boeing 737 MAX is the latest build of the most successful aircraft of all time. The first was delivered to Malindo Air in May 2017, just under 50 years since the first-ever 737 entered service. Six months later, a total of eight airlines have already taken delivery of the new single-aisle jet, which looks much like its predecessors but offers execeptional, double-digit fuel savings largely thanks to new engines. Southwest, the launch customer, wasn’t the first airline to take delivery of the new aircraft type, but at least it was the first US airline to get the keys to the MAX.

American Airlines was the second US airline to get the 737 MAX, taking delivery in late September of its first of 100 aircraft it ordered. (They’re all MAX 8 variants — the jet comes in four sizes, from MAX 7 to MAX 10, seating up to 200-plus passengers.) But, the world’s largest airline waited to take its second delivery before launching revenue flights — perhaps to avoid the embarrassment Southwest suffered when its first 737 MAX broke down after its first revenue flight.

Beginning November 29, both aircraft (registration N324RA and N304RB) were placed into service between Miami (MIA) and New York City’s LaGuardia (LGA). The three-hour, 1,097-mile flight just scratches the surface of what the aircraft is capable of doing; the MAX 8 can fly almost four times as long nonstop with a full load. Perhaps the airline wants to see how the 30-inch pitch seats and lack of in-flight entertainment screens go over with passengers before putting it on longer flights.

The honors of the first American Airlines 737 MAX 8 to fly customers went to the second-delivered aircraft, registration N304RB, fleet number 3RB. Before the inaugural flight, I got a chance to tour the cabin. Here’s a look inside.

Although American Airlines chose to keep the same number of first class seats (16) on its 737 MAX as its other Boeing 737s, the first class experience is certainly a downgrade. AA elected to install the same seats you’ll find on an ever-growing number of its long-haul aircraft as premium economy.

Arguably, these seats aren’t even up to the level of premium economy. Instead of 38-inch pitch that you’ll find in premium economy, American Airlines has 37-inch pitch in first class on the 737 MAX. Also, there are no in-flight entertainment screens. There are power plugs in the storage well under the center armrest, but these suffer from the same angle issue that you’ll find in AA’s premium economy.

In order to maximize the number of seats on the aircraft, American Airlines chose not to install a bulkhead between economy and first class. Instead a simple, partially-opaque divider hangs from the overhead bins. For those in the rear of first class, this means you aren’t going to feel the “normal” separation from economy. Also, for those sitting in the last row of first class (row 4), it means that your seat might be kicked by those in the front row of economy.

Reversing its decision to install some economy seats with 29-inch pitch, American Airlines cut the number of Main Cabin Extra seats from 36 to 30. This is a bummer for American Airlines elites, who already have a slimmer chance of getting an upgrade (16 first class seats and 156 economy seats on the 737 MAX vs. 16 first class seats and 144 economy seats on the 737-800) who now have to battle for fewer MCE seats.

There are just three rows of Main Cabin Extra at the front: rows 8-10. You’ll get just 33 inches of pitch in these seats. While that’s three more inches than economy, that’s the tightest Main Cabin Extra legroom you’ll find on American Airlines’ fleet.

The issues don’t stop there: an entire overhead bin over row 9 and 10 is blocked to hold equipment. That side of the cabin only has two overhead bins for the three MCE rows, meaning half of the overhead space is blocked.

The row with the most pitch in the plane is actually row 8, which is the first row of economy. There’s a whopping 40 inches between row 8’s seatback and first class row 4’s seatback. That’s three more inches of pitch than you’ll find in first class.

Apart from row 8, the exit row seats (row 16 and 17) provide the most amount of room on the plane with a generous 38 inches of pitch.

But, the real pain is in the back of the plane. Standard economy seats have just 30 inches of pitch. Because of the narrow seats, 30 inches of pitch isn’t bad on legroom. I’ve seen a 6’4″ man sit in these seats without his knees mashed up against the seat in front. However, there’s no substitute for pitch when it comes to personal space. And, I experienced first-hand how cramped these seats can feel, having turned down an upgrade to first so I could fly the inaugural in a 30-inch pitch seat.

Instead of installing in-flight entertainment screens, seats in economy class are fitted with tablet holders. That’s right, American Airlines 737 MAX is BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). Thankfully though, you don’t need to be prepared with downloaded content. Entertainment is available streaming to devices. And, while these are technically tablet holders, they adjust to hold any size device you may have.

Each economy seat has a USB power plug located near the tablet holder and a universal power plug under the seat in front.

If you like looking out the window, there’s definitely two rows to avoid: row 12 and 13. At least it’s easy to remember that 13 is an unlucky number for views.

But perhaps the worst aspect of the plane are the bathrooms. Fitting 172 seats into a Boeing 737 — with 16 of those being first class — leaves practically no room for bathrooms, galleys, or really anything. The two economy bathrooms — which are supposed to serve 156 passengers — measure just 24 inches wide. The narrow sink combined with high-powered water stream make spraying water on yourself and the bathroom an inevitability.

Bottom Line

AvGeek-wise, the Boeing 737 MAX 8 is a wonder. Passenger-wise, the American Airlines 737 MAX 8 is a horror. AA installed premium economy seats as first class seats and thin and flimsy slimline seats in economy. First class pitch isn’t generous and — with few exceptions — it gets worse the further back you go. Sadly, the 737 MAX 8 isn’t a bird that American Airlines flyers will want to seek out.

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