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Airlines

We’ve Found Them: The Most Uncomfortable Seats In the Sky

We’ve Found Them: The Most Uncomfortable Seats In the Sky
Mariel Loveland

Let’s be honest: airplane seating isn’t exactly the epitome of comfort. Pretty much everyone who can’t afford a first-class ticket expects to be uncomfortable, and they don’t even get the complimentary champagne to take the edge off. As someone who falls short of 5’4” on a good day, it’s hard to comprehend what exactly a tall person even does in economy class. Does that tiny bag of pretzels make up for the indelible pain of having your knees scrunched practically to your chin?

To make matters worse for tall flyers not lucky enough to score an aisle seat, legroom has been shrinking for decades. In 1958, Boeing debuted its brand new 707 with a glorious 34 inches of space between seats, or what the industry calls a seat pitch. This was also the standard on Pan Am and TWA’s early 747s, but it all began to change in the early 1980s when UOP—who had 32% of the airline seat market—introduced a thinner, less bulky seat called the Aero-Lite-I. According to The New York Times, the thin-profile seats allowed airlines to shrink from the standard pitch of 34 or 35 inches to just 32 inches while allegedly retaining about the same amount of legroom (do I believe this? Not one bit).

Shortly after the Aero-Lite-I was introduced to the public, a watchdog group called the Consumers Union began tracking seat pitch size across the industry. According to The Telegraph, America’s four biggest airlines—American, Delta, United, and Southwest—have all drastically shrunk their seat size over the last 3.5 decades. In 1985, no pitch on any of the major airlines went below 31 inches, but now American, Delta and United all have pitches as low as 30 inches. Virgin, which once offered 34 inches of space to economy passengers on their long-haul flights, now has a handful of seats that clock in at just 29.

It’s clear we’re no longer in the golden age of travel where people fly for luxury, but it is a different kind of golden age. With budget airlines, air travel is more accessible than ever, we just typically have to pack ourselves into our seats like we’re squeezing into a can of Bumblebee Tuna. Anyone who’s had a seat-back tray cut into their gut knows the real struggle, but it’s easy to avoid the industry’s smallest seats if you know where they’re hiding out.

These airlines have the smallest seats—both lengthwise and widthwise—of the bunch. If you’re tall, you best be asking for an upgrade.

 

The New Industry Standard

Three decades ago, airplanes generally had a 19- to 20-inch seat width and a 34- to 35-inch seat pitch. In comparison, modern commercial aircraft typically have a 17-inch seat width and a 30- to 31-inch seat pitch. Anything below that is considered sub-par, but some airlines are ultra-generous.

JetBlue is renowned for having the largest pitch and the widest seats out of any other domestic airline, with 32-inch pitches on most short-hauls and 33-inch pitches on most long-hauls. Seat widths clock in above average at 17.7 inches to 18.5 inches, and passengers can upgrade to seats with 37- to 41-inch pitches on select flights.

Airlines like Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Alaska and Southwest also have above-average offerings depending on the plane and the seat, but the industry is completely scattered, so it’s not a safe bet. Some of the airlines with the widest seats have the smallest pitches (see: Frontier), and some of the airlines with the largest pitches have the smallest widths. Ultimately, most passengers won’t find a Goldie Locks-type fit, and will have to choose the way in which they’d prefer to suffer.

The Worst Airlines for Legroom

Most flights offer seating with a similar pitch size, but some flights have a handful of unlucky seats with pitches that shrink below 29-inches. This happens more frequently on short-hauls (see: British Airways, Swiss, EasyJet, Turkish, Norwegian, and KLM, which all have some 29-inch seating). Nonetheless, a few airlines have started cropping it even further, though none have had the gall to shrink below 28 inches at the time of this writing. The following popular airlines are best avoided if you don’t want to accidentally end up cramming yourself into a 28-inch seat pitch:

  • TAP Portugal
  • Iberia
  • Frontier Airlines
  • TUI Airways (which you may want to avoid anyway, lest it go the way of Primera Air and WOW)
  • Spirit (where all seats have a 28-inch pinch and don’t recline)

Ryanair—one of Europe’s most popular budget airlines—also gets an honorable mention because its website says most economy seating is “up to 30 inches” which is vague enough to make me think some of the seating is really small.

Overall, long-haul flights tend to be a tiny bit more spacious if we’re really splitting hairs over and inch or two. You should probably pick your seat in advance if you’re flying on Iberia or Virgin Atlantic, which offer some of the tiniest long-haul seats. Iberia’s smallest pitches clock in at 28-inches, while Delta’s are as low as 29.

The Worst Airlines for Width

Unfortunately, getting a plush seat wider than the 17-inch industry standard is harder to come by than above-average legroom. Frankly, airlines are completely all over the place. For example, American Airlines has economy seating with widths as narrow as 16.2 inches and as wide as 19.3 inches, but do you really want to take that chance?

The following airlines have some seats with widths below 17 inches, making them among the smallest in the industry:

  • United
  • American
  • Frontier
  • Delta
  • Qatar Airways
  • China Southern
  • Caribbean Airlines
  • Hawaiian Airlines
  • Cebu Pacific
  • AirAsia X
  • Uzbekistan Airways
  • Air Transat

With 16-inch widths on select seating, United is the worst of the US’ four big airlines. Turkish Airways also gets an honorable mention because six seats on some of their 737-800s have 16-inch widths. You should also check any budget airline that isn’t listed in advance, as those are the ones that tend to squeeze in as many seats as possible.

Which airlines, in your experience, offer the tiniest amount of space?

View Comments (23)

23 Comments

  1. CaliforniaSteve

    December 12, 2019 at 5:39 pm

    Virtually all LCC’s in Asia have 28″ seat pitch. I’ve taken Scoot (formerly Tiger) quite a bit, and there’s nothing like getting the last row middle seat, 28″ that doesn’t recline, but, oh yes, the seat in front of you reclines. Trying doing that at 6’2″ tall.

  2. openfly

    December 13, 2019 at 4:30 am

    What about the 28” seat pitch ironing boards on BA short haul AND Club Europe??!!

  3. vargha

    December 13, 2019 at 5:55 am

    I had a boss who booked my travel from DFW to ATL, and twice had to use Spirit because the price differential between them and AA or Delta was so big at such a late date. She profusely apologized in writing each time. Spirit’s seats are only part of the horrible experience one goes through on that airline. But they are cheap.

  4. Roadrunner2

    December 13, 2019 at 6:22 am

    The FAA and Congress need to regulate minimum seat width and pitch: 20-21″ for width, 34-35″ for pitch. Anything less than that is cruel & unusual punishment, banned by the Constitution. This has just gotten completely out of hand.

  5. Seatback

    December 13, 2019 at 6:29 am

    What about padding on seat cushions? I spent two days on UA Express Jets and had no more padding than a park bench. Does it really add that much weight to an airplane to have cushier seat bottoms?

  6. gnggng

    December 13, 2019 at 7:22 am

    Is there information online as to the width of seats other than seatguru?. I am looking at AA 787-8 economy seats. Are some economy seats on this plane wider? Seatguru lists main cabin as 16.2 – 18,1. That’s quite a range for the same seat description.

  7. Spec1alk

    December 13, 2019 at 7:55 am

    It would be nice if there were seating charts aligned to carrier and aircraft model. This way, if I have flexibility, I know which aircraft of a specific carrier to avoid and which to seek out.

  8. DeltaFlyer123

    December 13, 2019 at 9:01 am

    Airline seat pitch is indeed shrinking, but not seat width on similar aircraft. In the article, you say that JetBlue has the largest pitch and widest seats among domestic airlines — the former is true, but the latter in not. The width of a seat is constrained by the fuselage width, and the Delta A320’s, for example, have in fact slightly more width than the JetBlue A320’s, 18 vs 17.8 inches. It is true, however, the A320’s have wider seats than the B737’s because the latter’s fuselage is slightly narrower, in fact, it’s the same width as the original B707 — and its derivatives — the 720, 727, 737 and 757’s. So all these airplanes types, throughout the decades, have had the same seat width in economy as they’ve all had 6-abreast seating.
    As for JetBlue’s larger pitch, the 34 inch is indeed the best, but the larger pitch you mention are for premium seating, not standard.

  9. foredogg

    December 13, 2019 at 9:23 am

    If airplane seats have shrunk in widths, especially on a 737, why is the aisle still so narrow? Did planes shrink in width too?

  10. picturegal

    December 13, 2019 at 10:18 am

    Since United seems to have a different price for every seat, maybe they need to start listing each seat’s width and pitch along with the price.

  11. dliesse

    December 13, 2019 at 10:27 am

    Seats in the back of the plane have never been 20″ wide. They have historically been an average of 17″, though sometimes individual seats differed. For example, for a while United’s seats were 16.7″ aisle and window and 17.6″ center (a nice compensation for getting stuck in that one). Airbus narrowbodies have more space and tend to have 18″ seats, while the EMB-175 is 18.5″.

    To be fair, there once were wider seats on United’s planes, when they offered their “Red, White, and Blue” service. There was a third cabin, called “Standard Class”, with 3+2 seating. Naturally, those seats were a little wider, but they weren’t coach (the fact that I’m using that term shows how long ago this was!). I can’t speak to other airlines in those days, but I’m reasonably sure this was unique to United. The regionals with DC-9s had 2+3 seating, but that’s because the DC-9 series has a narrower fuselage than the Boeings. They were still 17″ wide and called “Standard Class” because that was the (if you’ll pardon expression) standard name for a one-class aircraft.

    They did start out wider on the widebodies, until the airlines figured out that they could shrink them back and add an extra seat. Not many folks seem to remember that the 747 was designed for 2-4-3 seating and the DC-10 for 2-4-2, rather that 3-4-3 and 2-5-2.

    Yes, seat pitch has been shrinking. Pitch doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, though. It’s a measure of the distance from a spot on one seat to the same spot on the seat in the next row. It doesn’t say anything about the distance from the seat cushion to the seatback in front, which is what’s really important.

  12. peterk814

    December 13, 2019 at 1:20 pm

    So you didn’t find the smallest seat.

  13. Napamel

    December 13, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    My wife and I flew from SFO to DUB. I could not keep my knees together. So, since I had an aisle seat one of the knees had to be in the aisle where people kept hitting it. On the way back we had the same Airbus model but seats were different with more legroom. This is very confusing and will make it hard to fly on Aerlingus again.

  14. jmpaul

    December 13, 2019 at 5:20 pm

    THE BEST KEPT SECRET in the air is noted by DeltaFlyer123. The A320 body is more than a half foot wider than the 737. This is a huge difference in shoulder room no matter what sort of seats are in there. A320 flights thus are generally less miserable if the seat pitch is reasonable.

    For wide bodies, in the 777 look for the 9 across, there are still some and these seats are wider. Try to avoid the 10 across 777 models.

    For max seat width, check out the A220.

    Airbus has narrow bodies figured out.

  15. OZFLYER86

    December 13, 2019 at 10:39 pm

    WOW !!!

    reporters still reporting that seat pitch is same as legroom.

    IT’S NOT.

    If an airline wants to put an extra row of seats in an aircraft, they can choose to put in seats with slimline backs & can therefore reduce seat pitch WITHOUT reducing legroom.

    Old seats had seat backs up to 5 inches thick. SOme new seat backs are less than 1 inch thick, meaning there could be difference of up to 4 inches in legroom, without any change to seat pitch !!!

  16. OZFLYER86

    December 13, 2019 at 10:41 pm

    seat width hasn’t changed on all B737s/A320 family aircraft in economy. Always been 6 across. Talk about fake news.

  17. snidely

    December 14, 2019 at 1:02 pm

    Seats shouldn’t be reclinable if pitch is less than 31″.

  18. pagophilus

    December 14, 2019 at 9:17 pm

    How about Oman Air? 30 inches on the 737 and 31 on the 787. That’s tight for a full service airline.

  19. White Eagle

    December 15, 2019 at 1:03 pm

    One more reason to avoid UNITED like the plague that it is!! NOTHING compares to having to sit in a narrow, non-reclining seat glued to the rear bulkhead of the A/C!! I did it once—the LAST TIME that I flew UNITED. For me, it was the flight from hell, even though it was on the short LAX-IAH route.
    Every time I hear the word “UNITED”, my back and rear-end start to ache.

  20. formeraa

    December 18, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    Lousy article. Why do these article claim that “3 decades ago, the seat width was much wider”. It was NOT! Narrow body planes in 1989 has 17 to 19 inch wide coach seating. Boeing was 17″, McDonnell Douglas/Lockheed/Airbus had up to 18″ wide seats.

    Does nobody check these articles for facts?

  21. Oxnardjan

    December 18, 2019 at 6:39 pm

    Until we get uniform safety laws that mandate all seats have a minimum seat pitch and seat width the shrinkage will continue. This is a safety and health issue and the shrinkage will continue unless we force Congress to fly these seats for every trip to DC.

  22. mvoight

    December 19, 2019 at 11:40 am

    As many have noted, the single aisle Boeing 7×7 planes have had the same fuselage width since the 707, and seating has been 3×3, so how would the seats be narrower? It’s not like the aisle go bigger. The Airbus fuselage is wider, as it was developed much later. So, single aisle Airbus flights have wider seats than Boeing planes. Seat pitch has definitely gotten smaller. American Airlines tried year ago to everyone more seat pitch and increased fares slightly above the competition. That “experiment” failed, because too many people weigh price heavily when considering which flights to take. So, AA got rid of “More Room Throughout Coach (MRTC)” . AA then came up with MCE, “Main Cabin Extra” where a minority of the seats have more legroom. Due to lower sales than expected, AA is lowering the percentage of these seats on planes. Additionally, last summer AA added free alcoholic drinks for passengers sitting in MCE seating and labeled the overhead bins in those area as reserved (but not largely enforced) for MCE passengers.

  23. ksandness

    December 20, 2019 at 8:21 am

    I would have loved to have taken More Room Throughout Coach, but AA never seemed to fly (at any price) on the routes I flew.

    That being said, the older I get, the more willing I am to pay extra for comfort. I long ago opted for UA’s Economy Plus, and now that Delta has added Economy Comfort, that’s my choice.

    I flew MSP.LHR on AerLingus in coach last summer as part of a group and it was the worst flight in years. Tiny seats, constantly getting jostled, the stingiest beverage service ever (one tiny glass of soda followed by a tiny glass of water with dinner). I did not return with the group but booked my return separately after traveling around the British Isles. The thought of flying back in coach made me lose the will to live, but I received an e-mail offering me a chance to bid on an upgrade to business class. I made the lowest possible bid and received the upgrade.
    Whew!

    The tightest seating I ever experienced was on a domestic flight from Xian to Chongqing in China in 1990. It was a Russian-made aircraft that had plenty of room for piles of loose luggage (kept my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t hit severe turbulence) but a seat pitch so small that I my nose was almost in the hair of the person in front of me.

    Not an experience I want to repeat.

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