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American or Southwest: Which Is the No-Frills Airline?

One airplane (B737 MAX), two airlines (American, Southwest), and a question of identity (which airline is really no-frills?).

The plane in question is Boeing’s B737, the workhorse of the commercial airline business since 1968. It’s the most popular aircraft ever produced, and will remain so for the foreseeable future, notwithstanding competition from the Airbus A320 line of jets.

If you’ve ever flown, you’ve likely flown on one of the many variants of the B737 produced over the years. While the plane’s fuselage diameter has remained constant over the past 50 years, it has been lengthened numerous times. The design of the cockpit and the wing have been modernized. The engines have been upgraded to more fuel-efficient models. The cabins and seating have been periodically refreshed.

As of August, 9,659 B737s had been delivered, and orders for 4,427 more B737s were on the books. Among the buyers of the newest-generation planes, the 737 MAX, are American and Southwest.

The Seat-of-the-Pants Difference

While nominally for the same plane, the American and Southwest orders differ in a way that’s profoundly significant to flyers. And that difference plays havoc with our increasingly tenuous notions of the differences between so-called “full service” and “low fare” airlines.

American has ordered 100 737 MAXs, four of which will be in service by the end of 2017. Unlike American’s current B737s, which feature 31 inches of pitch (the distance between seats, a measure of legroom), the seat pitch on their new MAXs will be just 30 inches. (American had considered fitting the new planes with three rows of seats with just 29 inches of pitch, but jettisoned that plan in response to fierce blowback from travelers and the media.)

For its part, Southwest has ordered 150 737 MAXs, 17 of which will be operating by the end of this year. In stark contrast to the 30-inch-pitch seating on American’s MAXs, Southwest’s MAX seating will feature 32-inch pitch.

So, is 32- versus 30-inch seat pitch a distinction without a difference? Hardly. From a comfort standpoint, it’s a real difference-maker. And the longer the flight, the bigger the difference. If legroom matters, then you’re better off booking Southwest on any flights where American operates the same plane, assuming comparable airfares.

That calls for a reassessment of many travelers’ long-held assumptions. Southwest is supposed to be cheaper than American (although it’s not always). And the so-called low-cost carrier is justly lauded for its no-fees policies. But since when is Southwest more comfortable than American? The answer: At least since the two airlines purchased the same plane, with more and less comfortable seats.

Reader Reality Check

When you think of American and Southwest, which would you assume offers the most comfortable seating?

More from SmarterTravel:

After 20 years working in the travel industry, and 15 years writing about it, Tim Winship knows a thing or two about travel. Follow him on Twitter @twinship.

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