Eric Baker

Aircraft seating

v2.0  12 June 2019  © Eric Baker


The numbers
What the numbers mean
Premium Economy and Business
Airlines summary


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 many free upgrades over the years. We've only occasionally paid for Premium Economy seats (Virgin to Barbados, Thomson to Cancun, Norwegian to Florida and BA to Colorado and Delhi). We used to 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 under 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.

Qatar 787 Wikimedia

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 the USA the FAA is under pressure to enact minimum seat pitch and width standards. Congress directed them in October 2018 to set width and pitch standards but the FAA has a dreadful record of inactivity on this. But maybe the incredible shrinking economy airline seat will soon stop its mean march to passenger hell. The average passenger is certainly not shrinking.

A380 and magnolia

A300 cross section Wikimedia

A380 section Wikimedia

BA meal Wikimedia

BA behind pine teee EB

The numbers

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 Skytrax 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 and aisles.

BA 747 Wikimedia
BA 747 (3-4-3)

Air France 777 Wikimedia
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 ever 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, eg on JAL. That would give slightly more width per person than on an A380. But most airlines have crammed in 3-3-3 seating as if they are 777s. Nasty!

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. Even BA are now switching some their old 777s to 3-4-3 so beware!.

Emirates 777 Wikimedia
Emirates 777 (3-4-3)

Thai seating Wikimedia
Thai aircraft interior

Lufthansa A380 Wikimedia
Lufthansa A380

A380 Wikimedia
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 Seatguru. 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 and seat arms 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:

A330 Wikimedia

Maple and plane, own pic

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. We were upgraded to Business by BA in 2018 on a flight to Denver, but we were not that impressed. There were 8 seats across a 747, just like Premium, I couldn't lie flat, it was weirdly dark throughout a day flight and it was difficult to get to the aisles from the rear facing centre seats. I spent a lot of the flight standing in the galley.

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 still don't offer anything between business and economy. That often rules out airlines such as Emirates and Qatar for us because so many of their planes have too many seats squished across each row.

Thomson 787 We've now paid for full Premium five 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 (TUI) 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. Norwegian to Fort Lauderdale was similar to Virgin, great on the day flight but uncomfortable overnight. BA overnight from Denver was lovely in Premium with really comfortable seats. London to Delhi and back with BA in Premium was not expensive, but 8 seats across in a very old 777-200 (with tiny screens) meant they were not that comfortable or spacious feeling.

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.

JAL Premium Economy Wikimedia
Premium Economy (JAL)

Virgin 747 own pic
Virgin 747 from my Premium Econ seat

Cathay Premium Economy Wikimedia
Premium Economy (Cathay)

Thomson 787 Premium
Premium Economy (Thomson 787)

Airlines summary

Here are some personal opinions on what to look for with various airlines, mostly ones we've flown with:

Asiana A330 Wikimedia
Asiana A330

BA 777 Wikimedia
BA 777)

Delta 767 own photo
Delta 767

Emirates 777 Wikimedia
Emirates 777

Kenya 777 Wikimedia
Kenya 777

Malaysia A380 Wikimedia
Malaysia A380

Norwegian 787 Wikimedia
Norwegian 787
Qantas A380 Wikimedia
Qantas A380
Qatar A340 Wikimedia
Qatar A340

Thai 747 Wikimedia
Thai 747

Thomson 787 (Thomson site)
Thomson 787

Virgin A340 Wikimedia
Virgin A340