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American Airlines is full-swing into “Project Oasis” — the airline’s program to “harmonize” its Boeing 737 fleet. That sounds innocuous until you realize that this means adding 12 more economy seats, removing in-flight entertainment screens, swapping in tiny bathrooms, installing slimline seats and reducing pitch by 1-3 inches throughout the plane.

There are some notable upsides for passengers: high-speed satellite-based ViaSat Wi-Fi and larger overhead bins are being installed in this retrofit process.

While I haven’t experienced AA’s retrofit 737-800 — there are only a couple dozen retrofit aircraft in AA’s fleet of more than 300 — I flew on AA’s inaugural 737 MAX aircraft. This is the aircraft arrangement that AA is ruining its existing 737-800 fleet to match. And I can tell from personal experience that American Airlines CEO Doug Parker is simply wrong when he says that its “much more comfortable than our existing 31 inch pitch” seats.

Granted, the legroom isn’t the issue that we all expected originally; I’ve seen a six-foot five-inch passenger sit in these 30-inch seats without his knees touching the seat in front. But, space isn’t magically created — it comes from installing significantly thinner seats. These seats are fine for a short flight, but I couldn’t imagine having to fly in these seats for a transcontinental flight. But, that’s just what AA is doing: flying its 737 MAX on flights between Washington DC and Los Angeles and on dozens of routes from Miami through the Caribbean.

Jamming 12 more seats into an already fairly optimized aircraft cabin also means cuts throughout the plane. AA got so much pushback from its flight attendants to remove the galleys and install new ones to allow flight attendants more space that it routed brand new aircraft into maintenance. And, flight attendants joined the chorus on complaints about the tiny aircraft bathrooms — which measure just 24 inches from wall to wall, requiring a laughably small sink.

The problem with AA’s fleet “harmonizations” is that it’s hard to tell the different versions apart. For example, you’re going to have to know the tail number of an AA 777-200 to know whether you’ll get the Zodiac Concept D rocking chairs or the solid B/E Aerospace Super Diamond business class seats. These two aircraft arrangements have identical seatmaps — unless you’re able to find a seat map showing forward vs. rear facing seats.

However, there’s an easy way of telling whether you’ll be on a “classic” 160-seat 737-800 or the new ruined 172-seat 737-800… and it doesn’t require counting seats on the seat map. Instead, you just have to look at the row numbering.

Classic 737-800:

  • First Class: rows 3-6
  • Main Cabin Extra: rows 7-9 and 14-15
  • Main Cabin: rows 10-13 and 16-30

Cramped 737-800:

  • First Class: rows 1-4
  • Main Cabin Extra: rows 8-10 and 16-17
  • Main Cabin: rows 11-15 and 18-33

For example, here’s the seat map for the first retrofit 737-800 — which is currently flying a 5.5-hour flight from New York to Phoenix before flying to Miami and then back across the country to Las Vegas:

There are a lot of tells in there. Among these, the easiest is to check the first row for either cabin. If it’s row 3 or 7, you’re in luck. If it’s row 1 or 8 and you haven’t purchased the ticket yet, consider the cons (and pros) of the new arrangement before buying.

Whichever arrangement you end up with, if you want to know whether your flight has switched to a different aircraft type or cabin arrangement, consider setting up an ExpertFlyer Aircraft Change Alert for your flight.

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