Other than trying to get the best possible price, one of the most formidable challenges for economy-section airline passengers is to get a “decent” seat. Airlines have made it increasingly difficult to avoid being squished. Here are an ­expert’s strategies for finding comfort in coach…

Looking for Legroom

No single seating statistic means more to airline-passenger comfort than the distance from one row to the next. (Most people refer to this as legroom, though the industry term is “seat pitch.”) Every inch matters here. Seats that used to be 34 to 35 inches apart from row to row now are more likely to be 30 to 31 inches apart—or even less. 

Legroom varies not just from airline to airline but from plane to plane and at times row to row, which can make comparisons challenging. Still, some airlines offer decidedly more legroom than others. 

Among US airlines, legroom ­leaders include JetBlue, with an average of 33 to 34 inches from one row to the next…and Southwest, which offers a dependable 32 inches fleetwide. The laggard is discounter Spirit, which provides a too-close-for-comfort 28 inches, as do many, but not all, Frontier Airline aircraft. 

The three major US airlines—American, Delta and United—average somewhere in between those extremes, but they also fly such a wide variety of planes with various seating configurations that their seat pitch averages don’t necessarily tell you much about the ­legroom you’ll get on a particular flight.

What to do: Enter an airline, travel date and flight number into SeatGuru.com to find seat pitch details for specific planes.

Secrets of Seat Width

For larger passengers—and people who find themselves seated next to larger passengers—the width of an airline seat can be as important as the legroom. The vast majority of seats are between 17 and 18 inches wide, but when you actually use these seats, the variance can have a big effect. Airlines especially likely to provide 18-inch economy seats include JetBlue and Frontier…while most Southwest flights feature 17-inch seats.

Ironically, it’s wide-bodied planes such as the long-range Boeing 777 that are most likely to feature the narrowest seats. Airlines increasingly are squeezing in 10 seats per row on these planes, which is possible only if seats are around 17 inches wide. 

What to do: Try to avoid booking flights that have 10 seats across per row—especially if you don’t fit well into airline seats. As above, consult ­SeatGuru.com to investigate seat widths on flights that you are considering. 

Good Rows, Bad Rows

Seats and rows within a plane’s economy section vary in subtle but important ways, such as added legroom or decreased ability to recline. Airlines usually charge extra for especially desirable seats, but don’t expect them to disclose which seats are especially undesirable. 

Notable economy-section seats and rows include…

Good: Emergency-exit-row seats tend to have several inches more legroom than other economy seats for safety reasons—the extra space makes it easier for passengers to reach the exit in an emergency. But it comes at a price—airlines usually charge premiums for exit-row seats. Exception: Southwest doesn’t explicitly charge extra for desirable seats—it doesn’t even have seat assignments. Southwest passengers jockey for seats when they board. But desirable seats usually get snapped up by passengers who pay extra for “­EarlyBird Check-In,” which lets them board before most other ­passengers. 

Some good/some bad: Seats in the front row of a section, also known as “bulkhead” seats, often have various amounts of extra legroom. And with no seat directly in front of you, there’s no risk a fellow passenger will recline his/her seat into your space. But like emergency-row seats, desirable bulkhead seats usually cost extra—and they have hidden downsides. You usually can’t stow your personal items under the seat in front of you because there is no seat—these items might have to be stored in overhead bins.

And the tray table for bulkhead seats typically folds up from the armrest. That requires wider armrests, resulting in narrower-than-normal seats. Bulkhead armrests also are unlikely to fold up and out of the way.

Exception: On a small percentage of aircraft, including many Airbus A319s and A320s, the wall or curtain separating the bulkhead seats from the section ahead does not extend all the way down to the floor, allowing access to the space under the business- or first-class seat in front of you. 

Mostly bad: Seats in the last row of economy often don’t recline as far back as seats in other rows, if at all, because they are positioned very close to a wall. The aisle seats in this last row can be especially undesirable, because they’re likely right next to the bathroom door—for much of the flight, there might be passengers hovering over your seat or even holding onto the top of the seat for balance. Passengers in the final rows also have the longest wait to get off the plane, and bathroom odors can be an issue. 

On the plus side, the final few rows of economy often are the only part of the plane where you can reserve aisle and window seats without paying a premium. If you are in the final row you don’t have to worry about a child kicking the back of your seat…and you can get to the bathroom quickly, if necessary.

Also: On some aircraft, the seats in the final few rows offer extra space. If the plane tapers inward toward the tail end of the economy section—this is most likely with smaller commercial aircraft—the airline might not be able to squeeze as many seats in per row, leaving extra space around the seats that it does fit in. Consult SeatGuru’s seat maps to check whether this applies to a plane you will be on.

Bad: Seats in the row immediately in front of the emergency-row seats ­usually do not recline as far as other seats, if at all. It’s a safety issue—­reclined seats in this row could block the emergency exit. 

On some aircraft, there are two consecutive rows of emergency-exit seats. Passengers who pay a premium for the extra legroom of the forward of these two rows might be disappointed that their pricey seats don’t recline.

Bad: Some “window seats” don’t ­actually have windows. The placement of rows doesn’t always match up well with aircraft windows, leading to so-called window seats that actually offer a view of the aircraft wall between two windows. SeatGuru’s seating maps offer warnings about windowless ­window seats as well. 

The Confusing Categories of Economy-Class Seats

These days, most airlines offer a baffling range of different ­economy-ticket options—and paying extra for an upgrade doesn’t always deliver extra legroom or a wider seat. Among the many economy-class ticket options you might encounter, in addition to standard economy…

Premium-Economy offers seats and service that truly are superior to economy seats, though less impressive than business class. It’s most likely to be offered on international flights. (Other names applied to this seating class include Premium Plus and Premium Select.) Legroom, seat width and overall seat comfort usually are noticeably better than standard economy-section seats—here seats are likely to recline farther, and they even might have footrests. Food and drink options often are better than in standard economy as well. Example: Delta Premium Select on the Airbus A350 offers 38 inches between rows, 18.5-inch-wide seats and retractable footrests.

Economy Plus seats, often available on international and domestic flights, are not as upscale as those in premium economy, but you can expect more legroom than standard economy—typically around six inches extra—and in some cases, wider seats as well. (Depending on the airline, Economy Plus might be called Comfort Plus, Main Cabin Extra or Even More Space, among other names.) These seats sometimes include amenities such as free drinks that cost extra for passengers with standard economy tickets, but not always. Example: JetBlue’s “Even More Space” seats provide 37 to 41 inches between rows, according to SeatGuru.com.

Preferred Seating often does not provide a wider seat, extra legroom or additional amenities. These seats cost extra because airlines have ­determined that they’re in locations that passengers prefer, such as an aisle or window rather than a middle seat…or toward the front of the economy section for faster deplaning. Exception: When emergency-exit row seats or bulkhead seats are classified as preferred sears, these are likely to offer some extra legroom.

Basic-Economy tickets cost less than standard economy even though the seats themselves are the same size and have as much legroom. In fact, if you buy one of these tickets, you’ll end up seated among passengers who bought ­standard-economy seats—there isn’t a separate basic-economy section. But basic-economy tickets generally do not allow travelers to pick their seats in advance—they’re typically assigned seats at check-in—so they often end up in undesirable middle seats and frequently are not seated with their travel companions. Some airlines allow ­basic-economy travelers to pay an added fee to choose a seat, though rules and rates vary. In some cases, basic-economy travelers can buy a seat assignment only in the last few days before departure, for example.

Other restrictions apply with basic-economy tickets as well, but details vary by airline—read the airline’s basic-economy rules carefully before purchasing this type of ticket. Often these tickets are nonrefundable/not changeable…earn relatively few frequent-flier miles…and in some cases, travelers cannot bring a carry-on bag without paying a fee. (They are allowed a personal item that fits under the seat in front.) 

Helpful: An airline that does not ­allow basic-economy passengers to bring a carry-on bag without an additional charge often does allow this if the passenger has the airline’s branded credit card and/or elite status in the airline’s frequent-flier program.

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