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A beginner’s guide to American Airlines economy seats

Jan. 10, 2020
13 min read
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Main Cabin Extra, Preferred, elite-only seats ... oh my! When you go to select an economy seat on American Airlines, it might seem that every seat has some sort of designation. And if you're selecting a seat close to the departure date, you might be left with having to pay to select a decent seat or choosing a middle seat for a long international flight.

If that's your experience, you're not alone. On several American Airlines aircraft, over 50% of economy seats are designated as Main Cabin Extra or Preferred seats — which require payment to select if you don't have elite status.

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That can leave travelers with atrocious-looking seat maps like this one on AA's Airbus A330-300 from Charlotte (CLT) to London Heathrow (LHR):

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

Believe it or not, it gets worse. If you don't have elite status on American Airlines, the airline actually hides some available seats from you as these seats are reserved only for elite members.

Welcome to the crazy world of American Airlines seating.

We'll go through the four main categories of economy seating on American Airlines. Depending on your level of elite status and when you're choosing your seats, it could cost you over $100 to choose — if you're able to choose it at all. Even more confusing, some seats are in two different categories at the same time.

Note: We are focusing on American Airlines' economy seats in this piece. If you're looking for a guide about which first class, business class or premium economy seats you should book, check out TPG's American Airlines premium seats ranked from best to worst.

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A 10-hour flight is a lot more snoozable in first class – see how many points away you are from a cozy, 30,000 foot slumber with the free TPG App!

Main Cabin Extra seats

Main Cabin Extra on AA's 737 MAX (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

What is Main Cabin Extra?

Main Cabin Extra (MCE) is what American Airlines calls its extra-legroom economy seats. Many of American Airlines' aircraft have a section of MCE seats at the front of the economy cabin while others — such as former US Airways aircraft and regional jets — may only classify bulkhead and exit row seats as MCE.

For example, the former US Airways A330-300 aircraft only have two rows of Main Cabin Extra: the bulkhead rows of row 8 and row 25. Note, Main Cabin Extra seats are shown in orange on American Airlines' website:

Seat map on American Airlines' A330-300 showing the limited number of Main Cabin Extra seats in orange. (Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

What are the perks of Main Cabin Extra?

Don't confuse American Airlines' Main Cabin Extra seats for AA's Premium Economy, which features a larger seat and better catering as well as more legroom than economy.

Instead, Main Cabin Extra is the same seat that you'll find in standard economy but with more legroom. Main Cabin Extra seats have between 33 and 43.5 inches of pitch — depending on the aircraft type — versus the 30 to 33 inches you'll find in standard economy seats.

For example, the front row of economy on the American Airlines A321neo is designated as Main Cabin Extra and has 40 inches of pitch. While this is a solid seat — you can even store a carry-on bag under the first-class seat in front of you — the stationary armrests make these seats a bit more narrow than the other economy seats.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

In mid-2018, American Airlines added "complimentary beer, wine and spirits" and "enhanced overhead bin access" as perks of Main Cabin Extra. While that "enhanced" access merely consists of just a placard in the overhead bin, Main Cabin Extra passengers board in Group 5. That's before any other economy passengers, so you should have first dibs on the overhead bins. Note that certain American Airlines card holders also receive priority or preferred boarding — for example, Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard® card holders receive Group 4 boarding, while those with the CitiBusiness® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Mastercard® board in Group 5.

The information for the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

What is the cost of Main Cabin Extra?

The cost for Main Cabin Extra is going to depend on the route, the aircraft type, whether the seat is a window/aisle or middle seat and the elite status level of the passenger. For non-elite members flying on long-haul flights, there can be a significant cost to choosing MCE seats. However, the price doesn't necessarily scale with the length of the flight.

For example, from London Heathrow to Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) on AA's Boeing 777-200, bulkhead seats cost $118, aisle/window seats cost $113 and middle seats cost $102:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

While on American Airlines' longest flight from Hong Kong (HKG) to Dallas/Fort Worth on AA's Boeing 777-300ER, MCE seats range from $107 to $112:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

On AA's third-shortest by length — and shortest by duration — flight from Charlotte to Greenville/Spartanburg (GSP) on AA's CRJ-700, Main Cabin Extra costs $27:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

While this cost may seem excessive for just some extra legroom, you have to remember that the extra space from these seats adds up. On some planes, AA could fit more rows of seats into the same plane if all of the seats had the standard pitch. This means more tickets could potentially be sold. So, AA charges more to make up for this lost potential revenue.

Who can select a Main Cabin Extra seat for free?

These MCE seats aren't costly for everyone. MCE seats are complimentary for American Airlines AAdvantage Executive Platinum, Platinum Pro and Platinum elite members as well as Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald elites. Each of these elites can also select MCE seats for free for up to eight traveling companions on the same reservation. However, you must purchase a Main Cabin ticket — and not a Basic Economy ticket — to get this benefit.

Related: How to survive basic economy on American Airlines

The cost for selecting MCE seats disappears when logged in as an AAdvantage Executive Platinum elite member. (Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby elite members get complimentary access to MCE seats at 24 hours to departure. In the past, AA Gold elites received a 50% discount on purchasing MCE seats before check-in, but this discount was eliminated in September 2018.

So, if you have status, make sure to log into your AAdvantage account or list your Oneworld account with elite status when purchasing flights.

Preferred seats

Preferred seats on American Airlines' 777-200 (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

What are American Airlines Preferred seats?

The next category of seats are "Preferred" seats — indicated by green on AA seat maps. These seats have no more legroom than standard economy seats (30 to 33 inches of pitch) but are simply located in "preferred" areas of the plane. This could mean seats closer to the front, rows with only two seats or sometimes just random window and aisle seats, as you can see on AA's Boeing 777-300ER:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

Beware if you see exit row seats labeled as Preferred seats rather than Main Cabin Extra. For example on AA's Boeing 767, the exit row seats marked as Preferred don't recline — so AA sells them as Preferred seats rather than MCE seats.

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

What are the perks of Preferred seats?

Besides their "preferred" location in the cabin, there are no perks that come with American Airlines Preferred seats.

What is the cost of Preferred seats?

As with Main Cabin Extra seats, the cost of Preferred seats is going to vary based on the route, the aircraft type, whether the seat is an aisle/window or middle seat and the traveler's elite status. Some examples of the cost of Preferred seats found in the screenshots above are:

  • London to Dallas on AA's 777-200: $86 for window/aisle seats or $79 for middle seats
  • Hong Kong to Dallas on AA's 777-300ER: $79 for window/aisle seats or $72 for middle seats
  • Charlotte to Greenville on AA's CRJ-700: $15 for Preferred seats

Who can select a Preferred seat for free?

Preferred seats are free for AAdvantage Gold, Platinum, Platinum Pro and Executive Platinum elite members and up to eight passengers traveling on the same reservation. Also, corporate travelers can select a Preferred seat for free if their company has a contract with American Airlines.

Related: What is American Airlines elite status worth?

Unfortunately, the only way you're going to get a Preferred seat for free as a general flyer is if you don't have a seat assignment and there are no Standard seats available. AA's system will then assign you a Preferred seat.

Elite-only seats

Any economy seat could potentially be reserved only for elite passengers. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)

What are elite-only seats?

AA sets aside several seats on each aircraft solely for AA elite members. Those with AA elite status will see an asterisk at the top of these seats. If you don't have elite status, these empty seats won't show on the seat map as available:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

Main Cabin Extra, Preferred seats and even standard seats can be set aside for elites only. For example, further back on the seat map for the same flight above, you'll see that seat 33B is a standard seat that's randomly blocked for elite members only:

(Screenshot courtesy of American Airlines)

The difference between seat maps can be drastic. In my opinion, there's no justification for AA holding so many seats for elite members, except to encourage novice flyers to pay for an MCE or Preferred seat.

The good news is these seats are freed up for all flyers at check-in. So, if you're looking to move to a better seat, you're going to want to set an alarm for 24 hours before your flight to check-in.

Standard economy seats

Economy on American Airlines 787-9. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

What are standard seats on American Airlines?

Standard seats are simply those that aren't labeled as MCE seats or Preferred seats. These are usually located in the middle to back of the plane — unless there's a row with a missing seat, as that row is probably marked Preferred. If you don't have elite status, you're likely going to end up with a standard seat unless you're paying extra.

How to choose the best seat

Now that you know a Main Cabin Extra seat from a Preferred seat, you may be wondering how to figure out which seat you should pick. To help you with this choice, TPG has detailed tours of three American Airlines aircraft complete with empty cabin photos and seat recommendations:

For AA's other aircraft types, we recommend using SeatGuru. By entering your AA flight number, SeatGuru will pull up the seat map for your flight and show which seats are recommended. Just note that SeatGuru is still catching up with American Airlines' rapidly-changing fleet. But, it's still a good free starting point to figure out the best available seat.

It's also worth checking back often as the flight nears departure. For domestic flights, upgrades will clear for elite members starting around four days before departure up to the day of departure. So, checking back may score you a better seat.

Related: The ultimate guide to getting upgraded on American Airlines

To save time manually checking for better seats, you can use ExpertFlyer —which is owned by TPG's parent company Red Ventures — to set up seat alerts and get a notification when a window, aisle or a particular seat opens up. Note that free accounts are limited to just one active alert at a time. Additional seat alerts cost $0.99 each or you can pay for a Pro plan to get more seat alerts and tons of additional features.

Featured image by Cameron and his family would rather take more economy trips than fewer premium trips. (Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.