Airline seats are getting smaller as Americans are getting bigger. Sound like a recipe for air rage? Fortunately, there are some ways to beat the (cramped) system.
The standard U.S. airline seat nowadays is 17 inches wide, with between 30-32 inches of legroom. I'm five-foot-six, and I find 30 inches of leg room cramped, so I can only vaguely imagine the torture six-footers go through; a 17-inch seat creates problems for both wider folks and their seatmates, as we've seen on our discussion boards recently. Financial pressures, meanwhile, have forced American Airlines to end their "More Room in Coach" program, giving fliers -- you got it -- less room in coach.
That is, unless you can pay for it. United recently introduced a new "Economy Plus Access" program, which gets you three or four more inches of precious legroom per flight for $299 per year. United typically has a few dozen Economy Plus seats on each jet, which are doled out to elite-level frequent fliers and people who've paid top dollar for their coach tickets. They're still 17" wide, but have 35-36" of legroom. Economy Plus Access lets you reserve Economy Plus seats for you and a companion, no matter what fare you're flying on and no matter how far you buy in advance, as long as the Economy Plus section isn't full at the time of your reservation. For people who fly a half-dozen times a year, or even just three times a year with a companion, this works out to a mere $50 per flight per person.
Susan Daimler, manager of SeatGuru (www.seatguru.com), the Internet's authority on airline seating, thinks Economy Plus Access is a great idea. "The extra inches make a tremendous difference and once people start to realize that, they will not only be willing to pay a little more, but also might consider only giving their business to United. This would increase their chances of hitting the 25K Mile status mark which would in turn always give them access to E+ for free," she said.
You can also fly with the airlines that have bigger seats. In terms of legroom, your best bet is rows 13-25 in JetBlue planes, which give you 34" of seat pitch on a slightly wider than normal, 17.8" seat. Delta Song, Frontier Airlines, Midwest Airlines' "signature service" jets and Independence Air's Airbus A320 planes also give you 33" of room. US Airways' A330 jets offer 34" of seat pitch in rows 9-19, according to SeatGuru.
And the old standby of grabbing the exit row still makes sense, says US Airways' spokeswoman Amy Kudwa. Most airlines hold back at least some of their exit row seats for people checking in at the airport, so arriving early at the airport can still pay off.
For international flights, try international airlines. Air New Zealand has a roomy 34" seat pitch in coach class, according to British airline consultancy Skytrax, as do Korean carrier Asiana, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airlines.
It's more difficult for airlines to tweak seat width than seat pitch, Daimler says. "The airlines have concentrated heavily on improving seat pitch, and not seat width -- mostly because it is a lot easier to move around rows than replace seats that are optimized for width."
There's been a lot of noise in the past year about Southwest Airlines' official policy forcing extra-wide fliers to buy two seats, but it only really applies if the plane is full, and many airlines informally have the same policy on full flights. (United doesn't, according to spokeswoman Robin Urbanski-Janowski.)
If you need more room, look for seats with a little more than the industry-standard 17-inch armrest-to-armrest width. Daimler suggests flying with Midwest Express, whose Signature Service has 21"-wide seats, the widest coach seats in the US. United's new Embraer 170 jets have 18.25"-wide seats, and JetBlue's planes have 17.8"-wide seats. Delta's 767-300ER planes, United's 777-200 and 767-300, Independence Air's Airbus 320s, and all Frontier and AirTran planes all report 18" seat width. Daimler says sometimes those seats turn out to be 17.5" wide -- but that would still make them better than the 17" standard.
Another trick: fly on a smaller plane, which has only one seat on one side of its aisle. You'll still be squeezed in by the armrest on a small jet like United's Embraer 145. But if you take one of the "A" seats, you won't have a crabby seatmate to contend with.
There are a few other ways to get more legroom and seat width, too. Mid-sized budget airline Spirit Airlines has a reasonably-priced economy-plus class, Spirit Plus, with 36" legroom and 19.5"-wide seats. Spirit Plus prices are well below traditional business class prices. Checking for a one-way flight in December, we found a trip from Chicago to Orlando in Spirit Plus was only $171; the regular Spirit fare was $126, and the lowest business class fare we could find elsewhere was $492. For a flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale, Spirit only charged $158 for Plus, and $109 for their standard seating.
If you're willing to take a chance, budget airline AirTran's business class has an extra-roomy 37" of seat pitch and 22" of tush room. While AirTran's advance-purchase business class fares are only so-so, you can get leftover Business Class seats at check-in for $35-120 each way on top of your regular fare, depending on the length of your flight and whether you're connecting.
In all cases, if you're concerned about the size of your seat, go to Seatguru.com to figure out the best seats on your plane. If you're flying an international carrier that isn't listed on Seatguru, try the legroom list from Skytrax. You might also want to revisit our earlier column on airline seating from 2004, which still has plenty valuable information.
Talk about the pains of cramped airline seating on Air Travel Message Boards today.