If you’re over 5’9″, you’re never going to be comfortable on the new Boeing 737 Max 8

Aisle seat, window seat, tiny seat.
Aisle seat, window seat, tiny seat.
Image: Reuters/Matt McKnight
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When it comes to seat pitch—or the distance between seat back to seat back on an aircraft—30 inches is a set-point. Below that, customers freak out.

This lesson was learned by American Airlines recently, after it announced it was installing a 29-inch seat pitch on three rows of its new Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft. Customers complained, and loudly. The airline reversed-course and implemented a 30-inch pitch across its new economy class. The 737 Max had its inaugural flight from Miami to New York this week (Nov. 2017).

While 30 and below was once the preserve of only budget short-haul airlines, the offering is becoming more and more common on longer routes. Norwegian Air, for instance, is one of the first airlines to fly the single-aisle 737 Max on a medium-haul transatlantic flights with seats at a 30-inch pitch. If more airlines follow suit, one demographic in particular may find themselves especially cramped: tall people.

It used to be that if you were over six feet tall, flying was inherently going to be uncomfortable. But that was back in the days when a roomy 32 or even 33 inches was standard on a longer flight. Today, an average height American man (roughly 5’9″, according to the CDC) would find himself rather uncomfortable for any flight longer that a short-haul trip on this kind of aircraft.

This is especially true when you consider that it’s not only legroom that’s narrowed, but the seat back depth as well. To save more space, American Airlines removed the seat back entertainment systems. This allows American Airlines to keep a 30-inch pitch despite reducing actual legroom. The smoke and mirrors process of utilizing of every single millimeter of aircraft space is known as “cabin densification”.

In an online forum for A/V geeks called Flyer Talk, the topic of seat pitch was batted around.  Comments ranged from “Even for one hour, it isn’t fun” to “If you have any girth, it will be tight”. But one user offered a simple mathematical progression for a 5’8″ passenger:

  • 31″ – OK for up to 1 hour
  • 32″ – OK for up to 2 hours
  • 33″ – OK for up to 3 hours
  • 34″ – OK for up to 4 hours
  • 35″ – OK for up to 5 hours
  • 36″ – OK for up to 6 hours
  • 37″ – OK for up to 7 hours
  • 38″ – OK for up to 8 hours (domestic first class seat)
  • Int’l Business – Over 8 hours