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What's the Best Seat on the Plane?

(November 6, 2003)

Once upon a time, in the land of flying bliss, you could count on available seats that afforded you the luxury to stretch out and relax. Ah, memories! Those days are long gone. With air travel load factors (the percent of seats filled) at an all-time high with no end in sight, planning ahead and picking the right seat on a flight has never been more important. So, what are the best (and worst) seats, and how do you get them?

Not All Seats Are Alike

Airline seating is not completely standardized. Each airline determines its own seat placement and pitch (the distance between a given part of one seat and the same part on the next seat). Most airlines have settled on a very tight pitch of 31 inches.

Seat placement depends on the airline and airplane, and is determined by the configuration of available cabin classes (first, business, coach/economy) on each plane. Just because you sat in seat 9C (an aisle seat in the emergency exit row with lots of room) on a US Airways Airbus 319, it doesn't mean that seat 9C on a United Airbus 319 will be the same. In fact, seat 9C on United is behind the exit row.

Furthermore, in its Airbus 319 aircraft, US Airways has 12 first-class seats and 108 coach seats; United has eight first-class seats and 112 coach seats (40 of them being Economy Plus seats, offering wider seats and more legroom). If you flew on a Lufthansa Airbus 319, you will find that the aircraft is configured for 138 economy/coach seats for domestic German flights. For their European flights, they offer 52 business-class seats and 57 economy/coach seats.

Best Seats

Of course, first and business class seats are the most desirable, but they are expensive. For those who don't want to spend the extra money, there are some options. Aisle and window seats away from noisy, high-traffic areas are generally good options.

The best seats in coach are the over-wing exit seats, where there's lots of legroom—these seats recline, and they aren't near high traffic areas. Be aware that some aircraft have two rows of over-wing exits, and understand that the first row of exit seats won't recline. Planes with two sets of over-wing exits include the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737-400, 737-800, 737-900, 717-200, MD-80, and DC-9.

In order to sit in exit row seats, you have to meet FAA criteria, which states that occupants must be able to assist passengers and crew in the event of an emergency. Passengers must be able-bodied, over 15, and be able to lift at least 50 pounds. Most airlines will not assign these seats; gate agents (who can tell if you are able to perform the aforementioned duties) will assign them. Northwest, United, and US Airways are the exceptions. Northwest and United will pre-assign exit-row seats for their elite frequent fliers. US Airways pre-assigns exit row seats at airport and city ticket offices, where airline personnel can assess if you are able-bodied.

Seats behind bulkheads (partitions that divide the plane into compartments) are also good because they offer plenty of legroom. On the downside, they may be too close to galleys and lavatories. On a recent trip to Europe, my husband and I were seated at a bulkhead row behind the lavatory. At first, this situation seemed ideal, offering us lots of legroom. However, as the flight wore on, the smells of the lavatory became overpowering. On top of that, passengers standing in line for the lavatory had loud conversations that rudely awakened us.

What Seats Should You Avoid?

Middle seats, seats close to the galleys, seats near the lavatories, and seats in the last row up against a bulkhead are the least desirable. The seats that are up against a bulkhead (where the bulkhead is behind you) recline very little, if at all. Those sitting in seats close to galleys and lavatories have to deal with more noise, traffic, and possibly some bad odors. The very worst seat on any airplane has all four nasty traits; it's the middle seat in the last row against a bulkhead next to the galley and the lavatories. Other seats to avoid are those in front of exit rows, which don't recline at all for safety reasons.

Getting the Seat You Want

So, how do you increase the chances that you'll get the seat you want? Here are some steps you can take to tilt the odds in your favor:

  • Check the airline-seating chart before making your reservation. Most airlines offer seat maps on their websites. If you know exactly what seat you want, ask for it immediately. Ask for specific seats like "9C," instead of simply asking for an exit row or a "good" seat—you are more apt to get what you want. If you are unsure about any seat, ask questions.
  • Use Your travel agent. An established relationship with a travel agent can be your best ally to get the seats you want.
  • Book (and check in) as early as possible. And, try to get seat assignments when you book. If there are no seat assignments available when you make your reservations, try calling the airline's reservations after midnight of the day before your flight goes out. That's when expired reservations are canceled, allowing seats to open up. If that doesn't work, go to the airport early to try to secure a good seat.
  • Join a frequent flier program. Frequent flier programs make up one of the best perks around. Providing your frequent flier number at the time of reservation often guarantees a good seat—this is especially true the more you patronize the carrier. If you don't already have your seat assignment when you arrive at the airport, present your frequent flier number at check-in.
  • Check in early if you already have an assignment for your preferred seat . If you check in too late, airline agents will give your seat away, and you could end up in the dreaded last row, middle seat!
  • Confirm your seat assignment when you receive your ticket and boarding pass, or e-ticket. Also make sure that it is the one you booked.
Is There A Safest Seat?

Many people wonder if some seats are safer than others. According to Boeing study, there is no evidence that any one part of an aircraft is safer than another. The safest things you can do for yourself on aircraft is to buckle in—stay buckled—and pay attention to the flight attendants' safety briefing before takeoff and to all in-flight announcements.

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