Imagine you could spring for first class seats every time you flew. But that is in a dream world for most of us, heavily populated with unicorns and money trees. Here in the real world, most of us will be flying economy the next time we travel, without a second thought. Which seems a little disappointing now that we’ve filled your heads with visions of utopia—but flying economy doesn’t have to be a drag. Below is our guide to choosing the best seat in economy: what to look for, what to avoid, and helpful resources to help you make a more informed decision. But before we give you the goods on how to find the diamonds in the rough, seating-wise, let’s start with a little history, shall we?
Brief History of Airline Seating
Seating on airlines is a huge point of competition for different carriers these days, but it wasn’t always so. In fact, on early flights, passengers were an afterthought. In the 1920s, airlines made most of their money by delivering mail. (Some of the planes at that time could carry either 100 pounds of mail or a single passenger. So you can see how the decision was an easy one for the airlines.) But, as airplanes got bigger, the airlines had trouble filling all of that space with just mail, so the business model for most airlines began to shift toward passengers, increasing the thought and design behind the seating options.
Early airplane seats (many examples of which are visible at the National Air and Space Museum) resembled porch furniture, made of wood and wicker, and not attached to the floor of the plane.
Beginning in the late 1930s and increasing after World War II, air travel shifted from a freight-focused business in which passengers were an occasional, necessary burden, to a passenger-focused enterprise. Having produced an excess of aircrafts during World War II, the U.S. military began selling off its surplus inexpensively, which led to more airlines popping up and existing airlines vastly increasing their fleets.
To account for the greater supply of planes, airlines greatly reduced the cost of tickets, attempting to create a larger market for commercial air travel. To maximize on costs, airlines began running two different types of flights: First class flights flew direct, with more attention to the “experience” of flying, while coach flights flew with several stops (usually along mail routes) and fewer frills.
In the 1950s, these two passenger classes were combined into the same cabin and, for a few years, the same seats were used for first and coach class. Soon thereafter, the setup began to look much like we know it today, with first class and economy class in separate cabins, separated aesthetically as well as physically.
What to Look for in Seating Choice
So, now you’re an expert in how economy class came to be, but if you have to fly economy, how can you ensure that you get the best possible seat in economy? While buying a cheaper ticket will save you money, those savings are moot if your travel experience is a terrible one. The question you need to ask yourself is, what makes travel enjoyable for you? Most of what comprises “the best seat” has to do with how you answer. Below are some important considerations in choosing that perfect seat in economy.
We all have our in-flight routine. Some people veg out on cable TV on their personal video screen, some people read, some people immediately throw on their neck pillow and sleep mask and drift off to slumberland. So, it’s important to know what floats your proverbial boat—when on a plane.
For instance, if you prefer to read or do crossword puzzles during a two-and-a-half hour flight, it might make little difference to you what the media offerings of a specific flight are. But if you see “two-and-a-half hours” and immediately start thinking of the superhero movie you want to stream on your laptop, it would be helpful to know that the airline offers Wi-Fi on that flight and that only some of the seats on your flight are equipped with power ports. And, if you prefer to defer to the airline for your media consumption, it’s important to know that each seat is equipped with a personal video screen, and whether the airline provides access to live (usually satellite) TV or whether they provide proprietary, curated programming. (If you watched all the episodes of “Everybody Loves Raymond” when you flew cross-country last month, it might be a thorn in your side to see that the static media offerings haven’t changed since then.)
Fitting in Your Seat
If you’re tall—hey, it happens to the best of us—flying anywhere can feel like a masochistic act. But there are two terms that will completely change the way you choose your plane seats from here on out: pitch and width. Seat pitch is the distance between one seat and the same point on another seat directly in front or behind. While this just sounds like an unnecessarily complicated way of defining “legroom,” they are not exactly the same thing. Without getting into the particulars, what you really need to know is: the higher the pitch, the better. Seat width is exactly what it sounds like: the measurement from armrest to armrest. And, again, the higher the width, the more room you’ll have to get comfy. This article provides an exhaustive breakdown of the legroom offerings of the major North American airlines.
Window or Aisle Seat
This is purely a matter of preference, and both options have pros and cons. Window seats have a great view and the power to bring or block light from your entire row (remember your Spiderman: “With great power, comes great responsibility.” Don’t be a jerk with your window authority.) But you have to step over two sets of knees when you want to get out, and, depending on the angle of the ceiling, the window seat can sometimes feel claustrophobic. The aisle, of course, has that free and easy feeling, with the opportunity to stretch your legs into the aisles (though, watch out for those snack and beverage carts; they can do some damage to your precious knees and toes), but you have to deal with two sets of people climbing over you to get out of the row. At least we can all agree on one thing, though: Nobody wants that middle seat. It is the seat of ultimate compromise and is to be avoided at all costs.
Lavatories are a necessary hub of activity on a plane, and sitting directly adjacent to one can easily wear on your patience for a number of reasons. Firstly (on longer flights especially), the situation can become rather noxious rather quickly. And, when a line forms, you are forced to deal with fidgety, increasingly impatient passengers, who often—intentionally or otherwise—end up leaning on your seat. Finally, if you’re trying to sleep, the constant shutting of the door can be very jarring.
Emergency Exit Seats
“Are you willing and able to assist in the event of an emergency?”
The aura of responsibility may come with extra legroom, but exit row seats can have limited reclinability. There is also the possibility of these seats being chillier due to the proximity to the exit door, so bringing a comfortable travel blanket would be a great idea. These seats also require that carry-on baggage be stowed overhead for takeoff and landing.
The bulkhead is a dividing wall between cabins. These seats usually mean lots of additional legroom, but it may be in exchange for a personal screen (as there is no seat in front of you). The tray table may also be inside the armrest, which can cost you some width in the seat. These seats require that carry-on baggage be stowed overhead for takeoff and landing.
Back of Plane Seats
Hooray! You’re in the back of the plane—that means you get to board first! Oh wait. That also means that you have to wait for everyone else to deplane before you can get off.
There are a number of reasons besides “last off the plane” that seats in the back of the plane always seem to be the last to go. From the seating perspective, seats in the back of the plane can lose range of reclinability, due to the bulkhead being behind these seats. You can also lose overhead room, due to overflow flight attendant storage. Double whammy. Oh, and these seats will almost certainly fall into the toilet-adjacent pitfalls described above. So… triple whammy.
There’s also the unspoken truth that this part of the plane is often the de facto family section (read: screaming kids reside here). However, seats in the back of the plane can also mean that you get friendly with the rear flight attendants, which could mean extra snacks. It might be a small consolation, but come on—who doesn’t love extra snacks? Just saying.
Become an Airline Seating Master
If you feel like this post really only scratched the surface of your undeniable desire to learn everything there is to know about airline seating (join the club!), there are a handful of resources that can really break down all the nitty-gritty details for you.
SeatGuru features seating information for all major airlines, helping you make a more informed decision about your next flight. Offering sortable comparison charts, helpful travel articles and seat maps for various airline fleets, SeatGuru also distills all this information into its three-point FlyScore ratings for flight comfort: Love It, Like It or Live With It. We think you’ll Love It (the site, that is)!
Skytrax provides a forum for user reviews for airlines, airports, lounges and, of course, seats. So, whether you want to leave a helpful review or read through the thousands of reviews already on the site, it’s a great resource. Based on these user reviews, Skytrax dispenses seat ratings on a 10-point system.
Seatmaestro houses seat maps for most major airlines, and it features travel tips and user-generated ratings for airline seating.