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Where to Find Those 18-Inch-Wide Seats

Last week Airbus released a study showing that economy-class seats measuring 18 inches wide are a lot more comfortable than seats measuring 17 inches wide. My first reaction was, “For this they needed a study?” But the purpose of this study isn’t to inform consumers, it’s to sell Airbus planes. And Airbus planes can accommodate 18-inch-wide seats more efficiently than competitive Boeing planes:

  • The A320, 737, and 757 series all use six-across economy seats, but seats in the A320, nominally 18 inches wide, are about an inch wider than seats on the Boeings.
  • The A330-340 series accommodates 18-inch seats at eight-across and the new A350 can accommodate 18-inch seats at nine-across. Boeing initially sized the 787 for wider seating at eight-across, but most buyers have opted for nine-across, which means 737-size seats at best.
  • The A380 accommodates wide seats at 10-across on the lower deck and eight-across on the top deck. Most Boeing777 users initially outfitted their economy cabins with wider seats at nine-across, but many recent buyers are opting for 10-across, which means 737-size seats at best, and some original 777 customers are reconfiguring their planes with those tight seats. And although typical 747 seats can be a bit wider than 737-size, they’re still narrower than on the Airbus models.

Airbus wants to make sure airlines know that ticket buyers like you will prefer its planes to Boeing’s. Regardless of that self-serving motive, however, the study’s conclusion is valid: You’re better off in a wider seat.

The Airbus study concentrated on long-haul overnight fights and concluded that wider seats improved “sleep quality” by 53 percent. Airbus also declared that “one inch makes all the difference,” which isn’t quite the same. Anthropometric studies show that economy seats should be at least another inch wider still—and maybe two. But seats any wider than 18 inches wouldn’t fit on Airbus planes, so Airbus isn’t going there. And Airbus called for the industry to “standardize” on the wider seats, which isn’t going to happen any time soon.

But in the short run, you don’t really care about selling planes; what you want is to get the widest seat you can on any upcoming flights. Without lots of detail, for the most part you can rely on a few simple guidelines:

  • Cabins on almost all Airbus models allow wider economy seating (nominally 18 inch seat cushions) than cabins on most Boeing models. A few airlines have installed seats narrower than necessary on Airbus models, but those are hard to identify. The only Airbus models with ultra-narrow seats are 330 models with charter-style nine-across seats on some Air Transat planes, XL Airways, and European charter lines. Embraer 170-195 cabins also allow wider seats.
  • Cabins on all 737, 747, and 757 Boeing models are too narrow to accommodate nominal 18-inch seats and are stuck at an inch narrower. Cabins on 767s, however, can accommodate wider seats, although not all airlines install them.

On most planes, the plane model determines maximum seat width. But widths vary from airline to airline on two Boeing series. On the 777 series:

  • The good guys have wide seats at nine across: Air China, ANA, Asiana, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Delta, ElAl, EVA, Korean, Malaysia, Qatar, Singapore, Thai, Turkish, United, and Virgin Australia.
  • The bad guys have narrow 10-across seats: Air France, Alitalia, Austrian, China Southern, Emirates, and Etihad.
  • A few lines have both good and bad: Air Canada (-200 and -300 two class good, -300 three class bad), Air New Zealand (-200 good, -300 bad), American (-200 good, -300 bad), and KLM (-200 good, -300 bad).

On the 787 series, the only good guys with eight-across seats are ANA and JAL; all the others are bad guys with narrow nine-across seats.

Keep in mind that comfort also depends on legroom, where you find more variation among airlines and models. For more legroom details, log onto SeatGuru. But keep in mind that SeatGuru gets seat-width data from airlines, and airlines don’t measure width consistently. Instead, you’re better off relying on the airplane model.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2013 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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