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I had the honor of flying American Airlines’ first revenue Boeing 737 MAX 8 flight from Miami (MIA) to New York LaGuardia (LGA) on November 29. To get the true economy-class experience, I bypassed choosing an extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seat, snagging a window seat in the back of the plane.
My plans were almost foiled by an upgrade at the gate — even though I had asked to be manually removed from the upgrade list at booking — but I managed to make a last-minute trade with a thrilled passenger in seat 26A.
While there were initial concerns about legroom due to the 30-inch pitch of AA’s newest aircraft — after the original plan to install the seats just 29 inches apart was scrapped — it turned out that legroom isn’t really the problem with AA’s 737 MAX. Neither were the slimline seats; I had no problem from the lack of cushioning on this three-hour flight. And, the debate can continue whether AA is “forward-looking” or just “cheap” in its decision to not install in-flight entertainment screens.
The real problem: there’s simply no space anywhere on the aircraft.
I’ve stayed in Japanese capsule hotels and flown economy flights in 10-wide Boeing 777s. Neither felt as claustrophobia-inducing as the American Airlines 737 MAX. And, that’s not too surprising. When you jam 172 seats into a 737 MAX, including 16 first class seats, there’s not much room for anything else. The 737-800, with the exact same fuselage length and width, seats 160 in the densest AA configuration.
There’s no bulkhead between economy and first class:
The 30-inch pitch means I had to type on my laptop with my elbows against the back of my seat:
And legroom isn’t just squeezed in standard economy. Main Cabin Extra seats have just 33 inches of pitch — less than you’ll find in standard economy on some JetBlue aircraft.
But, the tight pitch isn’t the only place where there’s lack of space. The squeeze is literally throughout the aircraft. And it’s especially evident in the back of the aircraft.
The two lavatories in the back of the plane — which are the only bathrooms for 156 economy passengers — measure just 24 inches wide from wall to wall. On the inaugural, I observed a couple of passengers get physically stuck in the bathroom, having to contort themselves in order to exit the tight space. After squeezing out, one passenger joked to other passenger that he should choose carefully which direction he wanted to enter the bathroom — forward or reverse — as there’s no way to turn around once inside.
Also, the back galley seems to be as narrow as legally possible. When seated in the back jumpseats, the flight attendants’ knees almost touch the carts on the other side of the galley.
This lack of space is the efficient way of designing an aircraft for maximum profitability. But, not surprisingly, it’s miserable to fly. That’s why my hot take from the inaugural was to avoid American Airlines’ 737 MAX flights.
However, there are some flyers who can’t avoid this aircraft: American Airlines flight attendants. And now they’ve filed a complaint about the tiny bathrooms.
The LA Times reports that in a meeting with airline CEO Doug Parker, a group of AA flight attendants complained about multiple aspects of the 737 MAX bathrooms. As I experienced, the sinks are just too small to effectively wash your hands. Measuring just inches wide, there’s space for just one hand — if that — to fit into the sink.
Between the small width of the sink, lack of depth of the basin and high-pressure spray of the faucet, it’s going to require some skill to avoid leaving the bathroom wet.
Also, the attendants complained that the outward-opening bathroom doors block the FAs into the galley when the bathroom door opened. I guess that’s a problem that happens enough for them to note.
For its part, the airline seems to be working on any solutions it can to remedy these problems. It’s started by installing aerators on the faucet to cut the strength of the water flow. While that should reduce some of the spraying issues, without redesigning the aircraft interiors, there’s not much more that it can do — besides greasing the sides of the bathrooms — to solve the utter lack of space on its 737 MAX aircraft.
For now, AA’s space-challenged aircraft are only flying between Miami and LaGuardia. So, it’s easy enough to avoid the MAX. However, American Airlines has 100 Boeing 737 MAX on order — with an option for 100 more — and expects to have 20 in its fleet by the end of 2018. It’s going to become increasingly hard to avoid the awful experience of flying AA’s 737 MAX.
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