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Which airline gives you the most legroom in coach class?

Although several carriers have introduced 'premium' coach class sections that give more space between seats, out of the major carriers, only American consistently gives extra legroom on nearly all its planes.

 
 
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Close Encounters of the Unpleasant Kind

We can't all enjoy sleeper seats! Ignore information about seat pitch - it is confusing and often unrelated to the actual perceived comfort you'll experience on board.

Part 1 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three

 

 

Is there any way of knowing, for sure, which airlines give you more room in coach class than others?

The short answer is 'no'.  Your overall comfort depends on many different factors.

Part two discusses where the best seats are on each plane, and the third article in the series discusses how to get the seats you want preassigned to you.

Seat Pitch

The most common measure of seat comfort and 'roominess' is the seat pitch. But this is a flawed and limited measurement, and does not tell the full story.

'Pitch' refers to how many inches between the start of one row of seats and the start of the next row of seats. This can be as low as 29" in domestic coach class, while, in some of the first class 'sleeper bed' configurations, it can stretch out to 75" and more for seats that convert into full length beds. Most domestic coach class configurations have pitches between about 31"-33".

You might think that an aircraft with a 32" pitch would be more comfortable and roomy than an aircraft with a 31" pitch. Not necessarily so - sometimes you'll find that the 31" seat actually gives you more leg room than the 32" seat!

This is because part of the linear space that each row of seats takes up is used by the seat back. A seat with a very thick back will use up more of the pitch, and push you closer to the seat in front of you, than a seat with a thin back. It is quite possible that there can be more than 1" difference in seat thickness between the modern thin seats and earlier 'thick' seats, and so that modern plane with the 31" pitch may have more effective leg room than the older plane with a 32" pitch!

Reclining

Maybe you're quite happy with your leg room, but then two things happen to drastically change your leg room experience.

First, you decide to lean back in your seat, and recline it. This may have the side effect of pushing your legs further forward, and closer to the seat in front of you. Secondly, the person in front of you decides they want to sit back also, and recline their seat right into your laptop screen or meal or whatever, closing any remaining gap between your knees and their seat.

The amount of seat recline, and the location and nature of its hinge, can have a major impact on the effective leg room available to you. There can be a big difference between when seats are fully upright and when they're reclined.

Seat Width

If you've ever traveled in a middle seat, or indeed, any time you've had a person alongside, you'll agree that seats aren't as wide as they should be. Seat width varies from as little as 17" up to 19" in coach class, and those two extra inches (six inches in total between you and the people on either side of you) can make a huge difference to how tightly you have to hunch in on yourself. This is a measurement that is a reliable indicator that doesn't have too many other factors to consider (arm rest width may be a factor if you tend to fill the seat yourself). Unlike seat pitch, with almost no exceptions, a wider seat is appreciably better than a narrower seat.

Other Comfort Factors

If you're reasonably tall like me (I'm 6') then you'll probably find the foot rests that can be occasionally found in some coach class seating to be a total waste of time and space, and more of a bother, taking up valuable space, than a helpful comfort aid.

But there is probably one feature that you'll love on any seat, no matter what your size - moveable 'ears' on the sides of the headrest that you can move in or twist down to support your head while you're trying to sleep. These can be a wonderful help and solution to the 'sore neck' problem that otherwise may occur.

You Can Never Know

So, how to best determine which is the 'best' and most comfortable plane before you travel? You can try and be as scientific as you wish about these issues, but it won't really help. While many airlines publish seat width and pitch data; as you've read above, seat pitch can be confusing and useless information. And even when they do publish this information, it is usually quoted as a range of values, because it can vary from one plane to the next, even for the same plane model, depending on the version of seats in the plane and various other factors.

A cynical person would say it is almost like the airlines don't want you to know what to expect!

The Best Airline

Now that American Airlines have abandoned their 'More Room in Coach' program, the best airline is possibly JetBlue.  But note JetBlue only has more spacious seating in the rear two thirds of its planes - the seats behind the emergency exit row.  So if you're wanting the most space, be sure to request a seat aft of the emergency exit.
 

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Originally published 11 Jan 2002, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
Related Articles
Close Encounters of the Unpleasant Kind
Where the Best Seats Are
Getting the Seats You Want
First Class Sleeper review
Airline Seats Discussion Forum
 

 


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