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The skinny on airline seats

SmarterTravel

The weak pun in the headline is intended: Almost all economy airline seats are skinny, indeed. In fact, almost all of them are two to three inches too narrow to accommodate American male travelers comfortably. But they’re not all equally skinny, with a variation of up to two inches in seat width among different airlines and aircraft types. And as to legroom, you find variations as much as five or six inches between the best and worst options.

No wonder, then, that readers often ask, as one did recently, “How can I find the best seats?” My answer is that there are several sources of information on airline seating that are readily available to consumers. And while none provides totally accurate information, they’re far better than remaining in the dark.

Measuring the seats

You need two measures to describe airline seat space:

  • Front-to-rear space is measured by “pitch,” defined as the distance between any given point on a seat to the identical point on the seat in the next row forward or to the rear.
  • Side-to-side space is generally measured by the width of the seat cushion.

Why pitch works

Pitch is a totally accurate way to measure how much front-to-rear space you have, for your legs and at reading-working level. It’s widely accepted as the standard. Airlines can adjust pitch in one-inch increments, regardless of airplane model, so the legroom you get is strictly up to each individual airline.

And why cushion width doesn’t

Cushion width is not a good measure of your side-to-side space. Anthropometric data show that what really matters is width at shoulder level, which should be measured by the distance from the midpoint of a seatback to the seatback midpoint of the seat on either side (a measurement that would be analogous to pitch). Unfortunately, nobody reports seat width that way, so we have to make do with cushion width.

You can generally figure that the shoulder width in economy seating is two inches more than the seat cushion width. So you won’t be far off by adding two inches to the width measure. But because of the much wider armrests in business and first class, seat cushion measurements understate the true shoulder width in premium classes by as much as six inches. On a typical narrow-body jet, for example, a first-class seat cushion might be 22 inches wide, which doesn’t seem all that much more than an economy seat. But due to a wide armrest, the distance between seatback centers is actually 28 inches.

Airlines have only limited flexibility to tinker with seat width. In most cases, they install the widest seats possible in each cabin, consistent with keeping adequate aisle width. The only adjustments come in big jumps, when an airline changes the number of seats in each row. So the seat width any airline provides is mostly fixed when it decides which airplanes to buy and which to use on any given route.

Airline websites

Many of the world’s airlines show seat pitch and width on their websites. Usually, you find the info by clicking on “about us,” then “our planes,” with minor variants. A few airlines, however, make it a bit harder. On United, you have to click on “Travel Support,” “Inflight Services,” then “Airplane Maps,” a counterintuitive progression if I ever saw one. But United, at least, posts the data, as do most other U.S. airlines. All too many foreign airlines, on the other hand, do not provide that information at all.

Independent sites

Several independent websites provide airline seat information.

  • The winner—by a big margin—is SeatGuru, which shows detailed seat maps plus width and pitch data. Currently, SeatGuru provides info for Air Canada, Air France, AirTran, Alaska, America West, American, ATA, British, Cathay Pacific, Continental, Delta, Frontier, Hawaiian, Independence Air, JetBlue, Lufthansa, Midwest, Northwest, Qantas, SAS, Singapore, Spirit, United, US Airways, and Virgin Atlantic. It provides a dynamic display of special details as you move your cursor over different seats on the seat map. SeatGuru bests the airlines’ own sites in terms of ease of use and detail. The only downsides are (1) use of the undesirable seat cushion width measurement and (2) coverage limited to just 25 airlines.
  • Skytrax is the opposite of SeatGuru: much more limited information about lots more airlines. It lists “typical” pitch for each entire airline, ignoring the fact that, on any given airline, pitch may vary significantly among the different airplane types. And it has no width data at all.
  • SimplyQuick occupies the middle ground between SeatGuru and Skytrax—more airlines than SeatGuru, more data than Skytrax. If an airline of interest isn’t on SeatGuru, SimplyQuick is your next best place to look.
  • Flat Seats is a “division” of Skytrax but not immediately accessible through the Skytrax site. As the name implies, it has a lot of information on seating in business and first class, with special emphasis on the emerging standard of seats that lie flat. It’s a big help for travelers on premium tickets, but of no use to the 90 percent or so of the world’s travelers stuck in economy. Unfortunately, it does not post any data on premium economy, either.

Recommendations

If you don’t have a chance to spend a half hour or so researching seats on the Internet, here are some general guidelines about coach seats in airlines that fly in the US.

  • Width: Best (by a wide margin) is “Signature Service” on Midwest. Next best are 777s, in general, followed by Embraer 190s, most Airbus models, MD11s, MD80s, 767s, and 717s. Keep in mind, however, that some operators of these planes have installed narrower-than-necessary seats. Worst are all 737s, 747s, 757s, and most older regional jets.
  • Legroom: Best is “Economy Plus” on United, but you either have to pay extra or be a premium frequent flyer. Next best are JetBlue (but only in rows 11-26), Frontier, Song, and Southwest. Worst are most of the others.
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