What the numbers mean
Premium Economy and Business
It's hard nowadays, making a profit up in the air, and the days of stretching out across
3 or 4 seats in economy on a long flight are long gone (with one delightful exception on
Thai A380s). We also haven't had a free upgrade for a few years. We've only thrice paid for
Premium Economy seats (Virgin to Barbados, Thomson to Cancun and Norwegian to Florida) and mostly think
"you don't get there any faster and it's only a few hours".
But it's getting steadily harder to find comfortable economy seats on long flights despite
not being that large. I'm 6'2" (1.87m) and 90kg but long in the body, not legs and my wife's a lot smaller. Our first really
bad experience was Monarch to Kerala years ago - they'd put an extra seat across each row of an old
Airbus. The flight out was so cramped we paid for an early taxi to the airport on the way back
and got the first pair of window seats where the aircraft curved in at the back. The seats were
still ridiculously narrow but at least we didn't have a stranger's elbow in our meal. Now airlines
we once considered fine in economy are pulling the same trick, squashing an extra seat across
each row in economy, particularly on 777s and 787 'Dreamliners'. That's making it quite difficult
to reach some destinations in any sort of comfort in economy.
This guide, written from the point of view of a couple going long haul, is meant to help people avoid
some of the most cramped economy seating around. If enough people reading this, and similar sources,
boycott those squashed planes, mainly 777s and 787s, then maybe the airlines will have to think again.
In mid 2017 the Federal Appeals Court in Washington ordered the FAA to treat seat size as a safety
issue and one of the judges memorably called it "the case of the incredible shrinking airline seat".
The average passenger is certainly not shrinking.
Seat pitch (the distance to the same point on the next seat) is important. We all know
that 31" pitch is going to be quite cramped on a long flight and that 32 or 33" feels much
better. But it's not easy to evaluate, as some seats are less padded, some have leg room
obstructed by entertainment equipment and some slide the base forward as they recline. That
is a lot better for the passenger behind. So read the reviews, eg at
to get a better idea. You soon realise that a single airline can attract good reviews
for one aircraft type but poor ones for another.
This guide concentrates mainly on available width and entirely on two aisle passenger
aircraft - on single aisle aircraft there doesn't seem to be a problem with narrow seats.
That's because you tend to go on them for shorter flights and I haven't heard of any airline
trying to do anything but 3-3 seating on 737s, 757s or A319/320/321s.
The two aisle aircraft you generally come across are Boeing 767, 787, 777 and 747 and
Airbus A330/340, A350 and A380. Their interior width goes from 186 to 258 inches (sorry
for the imperial lengths but everyone still talks about aircraft seat pitch and width in
inches). The table below shows that some seat configurations are much more generous than
others. Note that I haven't put in claimed seat widths - I think they are within the
armrests and often exaggerated, eg Seatguru showed British Airways 777s with 18.1" 3-3-3
seat width. Their 787s are 16" narrower so with equal aisles and with a nasty 3-3-3
configuration that's got to be a super-cramped 16.3" seat width. No thank you! But
Seatguru reports a wildly improbable 17.5" width for the 787 - that doesn't make any
sense at all, even with narrow aisles and armrests. The figures below give a much
better idea of how spacious it's going to feel in terms of width, including armrests
BA 747 (3-4-3)
Air France 777 (3-3-3)
I took the interior width dimensions from Wikipedia and seat layouts from Seatguru.
The highlighted column showing width per person net of 17" aisles is probably the
crucial one. Airlines squashing an extra seat across each row may well constrict the aisles
to stop the seats going narrower than 17" (a psychological barrier) but if your seat is
narrow and the aisles are narrow you are going to get bashed by passing trolleys and
people. If in the window seat you may be crammed against the curve of the fuselage and
have nowhere for your shoulder to go.
In the table I've taken a typical 747 as bearable and the new A350s with 3-3-3 seating
are very similar. Quite a bit better are 767s (2-3-2), 777s (3-3-3) and A330/340 (2-4-2).
Obviously for couples the 777s are not great because you could have some enormous stranger
climbing past you in the night - that forces you to try for the middle 3 seats. With 2-3-2
or 2-4-2 seating it's much more couple friendly. A380s are the best (other than those
rare 2-4-2 787s) and we generally go for 2 of the middle 4 seats. That way no stranger
needs to climb over you.
As a cross check a single aisle A319/A320/A321 has 21.5" across per passenger net of a 17"
aisle and a B737 20.3. So in the table above anyone proposing to inflict on you a net width
smaller than on short haul aircraft cares far more about their profit than your comfort. The
figures explain why I've always gone for A320s where possible and narrower 737s as 2nd best.
The planes to choose for space are the A380s. They are quite a bit wider than a 747 but always
seem to have the same 3-4-3 economy seating and feel really spacious and quiet. No airline has
dared go for a nasty 3-5-3 configuration. Boycott any that do in future. Weirdly no US carrier
has ordered any A380s, leaving their older B747s and 777s looking like very poor alternatives.
I was really looking forward to flying on the 787 'Dreamliner' on the basis that it's slightly
wider than an A330 but was designed for the same 2-4-2 seating. That would give slightly more width
per person as an A380. But most airlines have crammed in 3-3-3 seating as if they are 777s.
The other aircraft type to be wary of is the 777. Designed for 3-3-3 seating (not very
couple friendly) I've tended to avoid this aircraft. But now it's getting much worse, with
airlines I regarded as OK pretending that despite being 27 inches narrower than an A380 their
777s merit 3-4-3 seating. Even Emirates have gone this route, meaning I may well never, ever
fly with them. I'd happily fly on their A380s out of Heathrow but a friend was about to book
with them from Manchester until I pointed out they had 777s with 3-4-3 seating. Not nice! Qatar
always had 3-3-3 777s but have now switched most of them to a cramped 3-4-3 layout. They are
now basically nasty if Boeing (777 or 787) and nice if Airbus (320, 330, 340, 350 or 380).
Check carefully before you book, and hope they don't switch you from nice to nasty later.
Emirates 777 (3-4-3)
Thai aircraft interior
A380 head on
What the numbers mean
Any time you are considering a long haul flight, eg using Kayak to see who flies where you
want to go, make sure you see what aircraft type they are using for each leg. Then check
them out on
Find your airline and aircraft type and see whether they are squashing you in or not. Ignore
the claimed seat width - it does not seem to reflect the actual differences in cabin width per passenger.
Where they've squashed an extra seat across each row they have probably made the aisles narrower
and pushed the window seats against the curve of the aircraft's side, leaving nowhere for your
shoulders to go. That's a common complaint on 3-3-3 787s. And a load of once reputable airlines
are cramming the extra seat across their 787s - Qatar, Virgin, BA, Thai, Air Canada and so on. Even worse
are the ones cramming in 3-4-3 seating in 777s.
So when you check the aircraft types on a proposed flight your decision about whether to go ahead
and book should be influenced by the space available. Look at the subjective seat reviews by
passengers, look at the seat pitch, look at waiting times where you have to change planes. But
above all look at the seating across each row:
- A380: a premium choice with 3-4-3 in economy - it feels spacious and quiet, even in the back economy cabin
- A330/340: good if you can get the two window seats in normal 2-4-2 seating and OK in the middle 4
- 747 (3-4-3) or A350 (3-3-3): OK, nothing special and rather cramped on long journeys
- 777: Fine if 3-3-3 (but not a couple friendly layout), avoid if 3-4-3
- 787: better humidity and pressure but still one to avoid - most airlines are squashing 3-3-3 seats across,
but go for it if 2-4-2
- 767: an old plane but rather pleasant if 2-3-2
Premium Economy and Business
Yes, you don't get there any faster, but bigger seats and better service does make a difference.
Once, years ago, I had the budget to go on a work trip to Australia in business class both
ways. But I could only get economy on the way out and was exhausted by the time I reached Sydney.
On the way back I drank fine wines, ate lovely food, slept for hours at a time and arrived back
rather blissed out.
We also had a lovely overnight flight from Argentina. A large couple in front of us barged
past the girl allocating check in desks. She asked us to wait and rushed after the pushy ones and
there was a torrent of Spanish between her and the check in person. I imagine the large couple
ended up in separated non reclining middle seats by the toilets. When she came back we gave her sympathetic smiles
but she had bad news: the plane was overbooked... so we were being upgraded to business class.
What a treat when you're not paying for it! We also got upgraded to first on Swissair in the 1970s
and to premium economy 3 times on BA and Virgin. But I think those days have gone, especially if, like us, you
keep flitting from one airline to another and don't have the frequent flyer points.
If you are paying it yourself business class fares are astronomical, given that they get you
there no sooner. So what about the various premium economy offers? Well it's strange but many
airlines don't offer anything between business and economy.
We've only paid for full Premium three times, the first with Virgin to Barbados. That was £200
extra out, lovely on a day flight, and £300 extra coming back overnight - surprisingly uncomfortable.
The second was Thomson to Cancun and back in early 2017. Only £300 extra return, with very nice 2-3-2 seats
up front in a 787. Seatguru says their 787 economy seats (9 across) are 17" wide and the Premium
ones (7 across) are 18". That's mathematically implausible despite wide armrests in Premium! The economy seats and aisles did look really narrow.
We've also paid extra for Delta's Comfort+ - economy seats with more legroom, well worth it. Even if you're in the economy
cabin airlines are catching on to the trick of charging you for choosing favoured seats. We paid £30 each
to BA to have the first pair of window seats on a 747 where it narrows at the back. That made for a very restful
overnight flight from Hong Kong. On a flight to Turkey we paid £34 each return to have seats in row 1 on
an Easyjet A320 - unlimited legroom but cold.
Our next long haul is to Florida with Norwegian, in Premium in 787s. 46" seat pitch! We're then using Spirit
to/from Colombia - 28" seat pitch but we've paid extra for the exit row both ways.
Premium Economy (JAL)
Virgin 747 from my Premium Econ seat
Premium Economy (Cathay)
Premium Economy (Thomson 787)
Here are some personal opinions on what to look for with various airlines, mostly ones we've flown with:
- Asiana: we flew on 777s from Heathrow to Incheon and back. Good legroom and 3-3-3 but on the outward journey
they marked the front economy cabin as full in their seat selector. So we ended up in a 100% full rear cabin while the 'full' front cabin
had 1 passenger per row of 3 seats. So we will not lightly fly with them again, having been cheated. Their A330s between Incheon and
Saigon were much better, 2-4-2 with excellent legroom. But my wife felt rough for a few hours after a shrimp omelette on the return leg.
They do have A380s now but unfortunately not on the Heathrow route.
- British Airways: Their seat pitch is no better than OK but we've nearly always enjoyed our flights with them and their Premium
Economy seats are very comfortable. Weirdly you can't select your seats for 'free' when booking. They have some A380s now but you're more likely to be in a 747 or 777 long haul,
both OK. Avoid their 3-3-3 787s.
- Delta: We flew from Heathrow to Detroit and then back from Miami and loved the flights. We paid around £50 extra each
way for Comfort+ (which tells you all you need to know about standard economy). That just gives you more legroom
in an economy seat, which felt really spacious on 2-3-2 767s. Great cabin crew too.
- Emirates: we had heard some good things about this airline and they fly 3-4-3 A380s out of Heathrow and
Manchester. And with 97 A380s in service and 45 more on order (Aug 2017) they seem like an attractive option. But
on many of their other routes it's 777s with decent legroom but the same number of seats in each row as their A380s,
which are 27" wider. No thanks! I don't like 3-3-3 777s and 3-4-3 ones are a no go area for us. I read that an
Emirates boss said you'd have to be nuts to put 9 seats across a 777 - I hope I'll read him saying in a few years
"we had to be nuts, flying half empty 10 across 777s around - we're going back to 3-3-3 at once."
- Etihad: We haven't flown with them, mainly because the Skytrax reviews are mixed. But now we probably never will.
Their A330, A340 and A380 aircraft have the usual seating but they have squashed 10 across their 777s and 9 across their
787s - two more to avoid.
- EVA Air: We were considering them for a long haul trip. Their 777s have decent legroom and 3-3-3 in
economy and they also have a 2-4-2 Elite (premium economy) cabin with 38" pitch. That looks interesting if not too expensive.
- Kenya Airways: We flew on old 777s to Nairobi and back. A section of internal panelling had to be bodged with
duct tape but the crew were good and we were reasonably comfortable. But I wouldn't fly on their 3-3-3 787s.
- Lufthansa: we flew on 2-4-2 A340s Frankfurt to Caracas and back. We had a pair of seats by the window each way but
the good recline and 31" pitch made the seats a bit claustrophobic, made worse by the pilots leaving the fasten seat belts
sign on for hours on the return journey, in smooth air. They don't have any aircraft with an extra seat jammed in.
- Malaysia Airlines: We flew on their A380 Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur and back and it was superb. Quiet, spacious, good
food and drink. Their 32" seat pitch feels fine. Their A330s are 2-4-2 and 777s 2-5-2, unusual but far more couple friendly
- Monarch: That's the airline that started my interest (some would say obsession) in airline seating. We went with
them to Kerala years ago, with a stop in the Middle East, and it was thoroughly unpleasant, with little legroom and an extra
seat across every row in an old A300/310. Now they only run 3-3 single aisle A320s and A321s so you're safe in terms of seat
width, although they are switching to narrower B737s.
- Norwegian: 3-3-3 in economy in their 787s but 2-3-2 with 46" seat pitch in premium. We're looking forward to our
forthcoming flights with them, at the front of the plane. Watch this space.
- Qantas: Only 31" seat pitch but we enjoyed our Australia trip with them, A380 to Singapore then 2-4-2 A330s to Perth,
Melbourne and Hong Kong. Their cabin staff always seem cheerfully efficient. Good food and drink.
- Qatar: We loved a trip to Goa with them, 2-4-2 A330/340 on the long legs and A320 across to Goa. Lovely food and
even Janneau Armagnac after evening meals. We arrived very happy at 3am in Goa. They have a lot of different aircraft types.
The A350s are 3-3-3, ie not too cramped. But there are two big exceptions and it's already stopped us flying with them again
several times. In late 2015 they started switching most of their 777s from 3-3-3 seating to nasty 3-4-3. They've also bought a
load of 787s and not only reduced the seat pitch but also crammed an extra seat across each row so they are 3-3-3.
It's amazing on Skytrax to see excellent reviews for Qatar on all their aircraft types but the 787, and now 777 which many reviewers have found
really cramped, especially on long flights.
- Thai: We've flown on their 747s several times. Decent legroom and good food. Their A330/340s and 777s are normal
layout. But beware their 3-3-3 787s. In early 2016 four of us had a superb time with them flying Heathrow to Bangkok and back. We
were at the back of new A380s with at least two seats each. Lovely staff and food and we particularly liked the little 2-4-2
economy cabin at the back of the upper level on the way back.
- Thomson: We'd always avoided them long haul because they squash an extra seat across their 767s and 787s. But we went Premium
to Cancun and back in early 2017 and apart from a lack of good films everything else was great; seat, staff, food and drink.
- Virgin Atlantic: We've flown with them a few times long haul, to Vegas, Cuba and Barbados. Their economy seats are
OK but nothing special on A330/340 and 747s - avoid their 3-3-3 787s. You also have to watch for entertainment boxes
blocking off chunks of legroom. We flew Premium Economy to/from Barbados which was lovely on the day flight but surprisingly
uncomfortable overnight. The service can be a bit haphazard, eg we were told the bar was closed half way to Cuba "so we'll have
enough left on the return leg". On our return leg we were told "the passengers on the way out virtually wiped us out of alcohol."
Hmmm! They're getting six A380s in 2018 - hope they're put on routes we want to fly.