Why The Larger Boeing 707 Had Fewer Seats Than The 737 MAX

American manufacturer Boeing has been an industry-leading producer of commercial aircraft for several decades. Its first jetliner, the 707, entered commercial service with Pan Am more than 62 years ago, in October 1958. This narrowbody aircraft is slightly longer than the largest variant of its 737 MAX series, the MAX 10. However, there is a notable difference in the two aircraft’s capacities, with the 707 having fewer seats despite being longer. So why is this the case?

Boeing 707 Pan Am
The Boeing 707 was a game-changing aircraft that catalyzed the Jet Age. Photo: Getty Images

Comparing the capacities

Let’s start by establishing the respective capacities of Boeing’s 707 and 737 MAX families. Boeing produced several variants of the 707 between 1956 and 1978. However, for our comparison, we shall be examining the 707-120, as this aircraft is closest in length to the MAX. It clocked in at 44.22 meters long, and had a two-class capacity of 137 passengers. In a one-class setup, this figure could be as high as 174, with an exit limit of 189.

As far as the 737 MAX is concerned, the closest variant to the 707 in length is the largest example, the MAX 10. At 43.8 meters long, his is just under half a meter shorter than the 707-120. However, its capacity is significantly higher. Boeing lists the MAX 10’s two-class capacity at 188-204 passengers with a maximum of 230. However, even the smallest variant, the 35.56-meter long MAX 7, outranks the 707, seating 138-153 passengers across two classes.

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United MAX 10
United is currently the MAX 10’s largest customer. The aircraft is yet to enter service, but Boeing expects deliveries to commence in 2023. Photo: Boeing

Larger cockpit leaves less space

While the 707 is a longer aircraft overall, this does not necessarily mean that it correspondingly has more cabin space. One factor that reduced the amount of space available for seats on the aircraft was its larger cockpit. The 707, as was common with jetliners of its time, required a third member of cockpit crew, namely a flight engineer.

This meant that the cockpit, as a whole, was larger, and reduced the amount of space that could otherwise have been used to seat passengers. Since then, the advent of glass cockpits has removed the need for onboard flight engineers. This has led to aircraft such as the 737 MAX featuring smaller, two-person cockpits, which free up cabin space.

Boeing 707 Getty
The 707 required a flight engineer to monitor its many analog dials and gauges. Photo: Getty Images

The difference in capacities between the 707 and 737 MAX series also reflects how industry trends have changed over time. When the 707 was in its heyday, commercial air travel was generally a relatively luxurious domain, without the prevalence of low-cost carriers of today.

As such, passengers were afforded much more space onboard. According to Boeing’s 707 Airplane Characteristics For Airport Planning document, economy class seat pitch onboard the 707 was a generous 34 inches. Meanwhile, business class passengers enjoyed a full 40 inches.

AA 737 MAX
Economy passengers on American’s 737 MAX 8 have four inches less legroom than the 707 typically offered. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Today, aircraft are cheaper to operate. As such, airlines often look to utilize this fact by carrying more passengers to generate greater revenue, even with cheaper ticket prices. This is reflected in the seat pitch onboard the 737 MAX. To use the example of American Airlines’ MAX 8, SeatGuru reports that standard economy class seats offer passengers 30 inches of pitch. Meanwhile, first class passengers are afforded 37 inches.

Over the course of an entire aircraft’s worth of seats, the difference in pitch between the 707 quickly adds up. As such, the difference in their respective capacities can be attributed to several different factors. These include the smaller, glass cockpits that eliminated the need for a space-consuming onboard flight engineer, and the general trend towards higher seating densities.

Which Boeing family is your favorite out of the 707 and the 737 MAX? Have you flown on either or both of these aircraft? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!