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I came into this flight prepared to hate it, but I was surprised to have a good experience. The well-designed seat provided plenty of storage, Wi-Fi was both fast and free, service was top-notch and the food/drink options were solid for a short domestic flight. Cons include a lack of in-flight entertainment screen, reduced seat padding and a slightly smaller bathroom.

The newest aircraft type in American Airlines’ fleet is the Boeing 737 MAX 8. The newest product from Boeing is designed to be more fuel efficient, quieter and with a better cabin interior than the earlier 737s.

However, the world’s largest airline has more than offset the passenger-experience positives by shoving 172 seats into the aircraft, leading to complaints from travelers and flight attendants alike. American has already taken delivery of four of these aircraft and expects to have a total of 20 in its fleet by the end of 2018. It has a total of 100 on order, so, for better or worse — but mostly worse — you can eventually expect to see these aircraft appearing at an airport near you.

I had flown the inaugural revenue service of AA’s 737 MAX in standard economy, but I had yet to try first class on the new aircraft. So, I booked a flight on the 737 MAX from New York City’s LaGuardia (LGA) to Miami (MIA). Then, for comparison purposes, I booked a flight back to LGA on AA’s Boeing 737-800 just 28 minutes after my scheduled arrival.

Stay tuned for the head-to-head review. But, for now, let’s see how the 737 MAX did.

Booking

With my packed travel schedule, there weren’t many days in which I could fit this review run. And, with first class cabins mostly full, I didn’t want to gamble hoping to get an upgrade into one of the remaining seats. So, we bit the bullet and booked first class from LGA-MIA, booking the flight through the TPG American Express Centurion card. While AA.com was quoting the flight at $483, American Express’ special agreement with American Airlines brought the price down to $419.

Although we could have gotten 5x points for booking with a Platinum Card from American Express, the Amex Centurion card allowed us to redeem Membership Rewards points for the flight and get a 50% rebate on those points. That gave us an effective rate of 2 cents per Membership Rewards point.

Check-In and Lounge

Due to the last-minute nature of the booking and the same-day turn, there was no need to stop by the check-in desk. I checked in on the American Airlines app during my Uber ride to LaGuardia. Once at the airport, I presented my mobile boarding pass, photo ID and my Platinum Card from American Express at the Centurion Lounge at LGA to grab a quick bite to eat and drink. Then, I used that mobile boarding pass to quickly and easily clear TSA PreCheck in LGA’s Terminal C.

Seat and Cabin

The first thing that struck me upon boarding the AA 737 MAX on the inaugural flight is that AA installed its international premium economy seats as first class seats on the MAX. This isn’t the only aircraft where this is the case; there’s a modified version of this seat used as first class seating on (at least) AA’s retrofit legacy-US Airlines Airbus A319s.

The striking feature of these seats is just how thin they are. American Airlines seemingly is trying to maintain the same legroom it has in first class on the Boeing 737-800 (38 inch pitch) while only spacing 37 inches from seatback to seatback on the MAX. It’s not a bad idea in theory, but by the end of this three hour flight, I was certainly feeling the lack of padding.

AA 737-800 first class seat compared with AA 737 MAX first class seat.
AA 737-800 first class seat, above, compared with AA 737 MAX first class seat.

Strangely, I felt worse sitting in these first class seats for three hours than the economy seats for the same time period. However, I can probably chalk this up to relativity. The first class seat ended up being the worst part of the 737 MAX first class flight experience vs. one of numerous problems of the economy experience.

The seat in front of these seats was rather plain, with a large, 15.5 inch wide literature tray. There’s no in-flight entertainment screen or even a holder for your personal electronic device, like you’d find in economy.

However, these seats still have notable advantages over the seats in the back. There’s a decent amount of room with 21 inches between armrests. That’s the same as you’ll find on AA’s other 737s.

The intelligently designed tray tables stow in the outside armrests (on the aisle and window). The bi-fold tray table measures 19 inches wide by 10.5 inches deep when fully extended. The only trick to this tray table is that you’ve got to pull the lever behind the stored tray to release it, which I watched a fellow passenger learn the hard way after unsuccessfully struggling to pull the table out.

The design of the tray table leaves enough space between the seats for a storage well. This pocket measures roughly 13 inches wide well by 3.25 deep by 11 from the bottom of the well to the bottom of the openable armrest. This can be large enough to store items as large as a tablet, small laptop or magazines. Or you can just use the space to store a bunch of smaller items such as your wallet, phone, boarding pass, small camera, etc.

In the back wall of this storage well, there are two plugs: one universal power plug with a USB plug immediately above it. The proximity of the plugs can cause issues if you have a bulky power adapter on your laptop plug.

Also, the recessed nature of the power plugs can cause issues for those with plugs that extend at a 90° angle from the socket. I’ve experienced this issue in American Airlines’ premium economy seats with my old cell phone plug:

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At the front of this middle armrest was a small (6.5 inch by 5 inch) drink tray that folds out from inside the armrest. The undivided nature of the tray could lead to unwelcome “encroachment” from your neighbor.

If you’re looking to take a nap on the hopefully-short flight, the seats have a moderate recline and foldable headrest wings to support your neck.

Bathroom

I took these flights the same day I published an article about American Airlines flight attendants complaining about the 737 MAX bathrooms. So, the aircraft bathrooms were definitely on my mind when I boarded. There were two of my main questions that I wanted to answer: How small are the first class bathrooms? And, were the bathroom sinks actually fixed?

The small economy bathroom was still as small as I remembered it.
The small economy bathroom was still as small as I remembered it.

As I found on the inaugural flight — and confirmed this flight — the two economy bathrooms measure just 24 inches wide. However, I wasn’t able to measure the first class bathroom during the inaugural flight.

When I first stepped into the first class bathroom, I noticed it felt noticeably larger than the economy bathroom I just tested. Sure enough, the bathroom measured 29 inches wide. That’s not spacious, but it’s a critical five inches wider than the economy bathrooms. As I’d find out on my 737-800 return flight, the MAX’s first class bathroom is just 1.5 inches smaller than what you’d find on AA’s other 737s.

So, how about the bathroom faucet fix? I noticed that many passengers on the inaugural AA 737 MAX flight exited the bathroom wet due to the small economy sink and high-pressure spray. To fix this issue, American Airlines installed aerators in the sink to make the water stream more reasonable. Sure enough, the fix worked:

Service

Our NYC-based cabin crew was surprisingly good — especially for an American Airlines crew. Once service began at cruising altitude, the flight attendants battled turbulence to take dinner orders and make sure that we still got our pre-meal drinks and warm nuts. And they didn’t take a break from there, working continuously to top off glasses, serve meals and collect plates.

During the initial service, the flight attendants greeted each passenger by name and referred to passengers by their formal names (Mr. Genter) periodically through the flight. This is inconsistently done on American Airlines domestic flights, so it was refreshing.

Food & Drink

Thanks to the slightly early boarding and very light load in economy (41 of 156 economy seats were filled), the flight attendants served a full pre-departure beverage service. Seemingly any drink could be ordered. Beverages were served in a plastic cup.

For this 4:29pm departure, I was pleasantly surprised that a full meal service was provided. That said, it was an early-bird special, with meals served before 6pm and dinner service completed by 6:30pm.

On-board, dinner options were summarized as “pasta or chicken.” However, longer descriptions were available online before the flight. Since I booked within 24 hours, I was unable to pre-order my meal, but I saw the meal descriptions:

  • Grilled Chicken: haricots verts, cherry tomatoes, olives, garlic herb butter
  • Ravioli: stuffed with burrata cheese in tomato garlic sauce with roasted cherry tomatoes

Or, if you pre-ordered it, you could have selected a “Fruit and Cheese Plate” for your meal.

Meal choices were taken from front to back and left to right. So, I was 12th of 16 first class passengers to choose my meal. Despite this, both meals options were still available. I chose the chicken.

After an appetizer of warmed nuts and an initial drink order, meals were served from front to back. The main course, a salad and an empty bread plate were all served on a single platter. This was shortly followed by a basket of bread. Bread choices were whole grain, sourdough or Asiago. (Unfortunately, no pretzel roll was available on this flight.)

The chicken was juicy while still cooked through. The green beans still had a snap to them. The salad was a little basic, served with “olive oil & vinegar dressing.”

For dessert, passengers were offered a choice of chocolate chip or Snickerdoodle cookies. While the flight attendants had reported having issues with the ovens on the 737 MAX aircraft, the chocolate chip cookie I selected was perfectly cooked. I needed to double-check that American Airlines wasn’t testing the return of the bake-on-board cookies on this flight.

In-Flight Entertainment

AA’s 737 MAX aircraft infamously don’t have in-flight entertainment screens. Instead, the airline directs flyers to stream entertainment to their personal devices. In economy, AA has installed personal device holders.

At first glance, no personal electronic device holders seem to be installed in domestic first class. However, when you pull out your tray table, you’ll notice an extra, seemingly random little folding flap. Turns out that’s a very useful 7.25 inch by 4.5 inch device shelf — either angled up to hold your phone…

…or as an extension of the tray table to act as a stand for an iPad or tablet:

Since there are no IFE screens on all AA 737 MAX aircraft, you have to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device). The gate agents helpfully instructed passengers to download the American Airlines app before boarding so that they could watch in-flight entertainment on-board. Similar announcements were made by flight attendants during boarding.

However, it seems American Airlines realizes passengers aren’t used to downloading the app before boarding. Also, the airline is still working out how to let passengers with monthly Gogo subscriptions access the ViaSat Wi-Fi on the 737 MAX. For these reasons, the airline is providing free in-flight Wi-Fi on its 737 MAX flights for now. An American Airlines spokesperson has confirmed to me that ViaSat internet will remain complimentary until the airline is able to get Gogo subscribers free access to ViaSat.

Generally, the problem with giving away free Wi-Fi is that it’s going to be overused, which ends up slowing down the connection for all. However, ViaSat handled the 57-passenger load admirably. The ping was understandably high — after all the data is being beamed from the airplane into space down to earth and back through space to the aircraft. However, the download speed was quick.

Overall Impression

I’ll be honest: I came into this flight ready to hate it. I was left disappointed in this regard. Between one of the best American Airlines in-flight services I’ve experienced, good food and free Wi-Fi, it was about as good of a domestic first class experience as I could expect. The main cons from the flight were the lack of padding in the seats and the slightly smaller bathrooms.

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