The Secret to Getting a Good Airline Seat: Book a Better Airplane

With U.S. carriers holding back on replacing fleets of ageing jalopies, look for a jet that has a cabin with seats that can’t be shrunk.

I asked my wife to measure the width of my backside, standing. Fourteen inches. Of course, people do not normally take a tape measure to their anatomy and, if they do, it’s better that it be done discreetly by an intimate rather than a stranger.

But these days there is a need to know how you measure up not just in inches but fractions of an inch because there is a piece of personal space being sold to you that has been pared down to intolerable dimensions – the space sold to you by airlines.

I speak not simply of the seat, although that is the physical object that you pay for, but the space that comes with the seat. The airline is also selling you a tiny piece of real estate between your seat and the next, as well as the air around and above you – the importance of which is seldom noted. Everything about this allotment of space has been decided scientifically with a punitive rigor worthy of a coffin maker.

The chair that I occupy every day as I write is 19 inches wide. It has been carefully sculpted with adjustable lumbar support for this purpose. Without getting too vivid that 14-inch girth changes when I sit. There is spread. That spread comfortably settles within the 19 inches. Nobody is yet offering a coach seat that wide.

I have been flying on airlines since 1958. I have sat in every iteration of the airline seat since then. I have seen cabin comforts get progressively better as the airplanes themselves have become progressively better – faster, quieter and much safer. In that time, and I think much to the world’s advantage, air travel has gone from being a rare and expensive privilege to becoming a mass transit system.

This could not have happened without a fundamental change in the transaction between the airline and the passenger. You can’t offer the prices of a mass transit system and at the same time provide the comforts of a luxury limousine. Most passengers get that. I can now fly the Atlantic for a fraction of the 1958 price, in real terms, and I don’t expect the caviar and champagne served to me on that first flight (paid for, I should explain, by my generous employer).

Even so, I have never seen anything to equal the treatment now dished out to passengers by the major American carriers. There comes a point where providing great value for money moves a step further to chiseling the customer with a lousy deal - and they are now surely well beyond that point.

The oligopoly that delivers 80 percent of the domestic American market to American Airlines, United, Delta and Southwest behaves toward its customers with the impunity that all such arrangements naturally acquire if the courts do not intervene. But, amazingly, that is what happened when a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit scolded the Federal Aviation Administration for standing idly by while the airlines pursued a policy of what one judge called “the incredible shrinking airline seat.”

The case was brought by the passenger action group Flyers Rights. They were concerned that the FAA had not properly considered how increased seating density could hamper evacuations in an emergency, and the court agreed.

Behind the issue of the seats themselves is a larger one involving a pattern of behavior by all the major U.S. airlines. They are collectively and deliberately delaying by years an advance in cabin comforts that should by now have become a common standard. Most domestic and many international flights are still flown by airplanes in which the quality of the cabin climate – dryness of the air, temperature and air conditioning – is determined by technology dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s.

American, United and Delta have large fleets of two Boeing airplanes of that vintage, the narrowbody 757 and the widebody 767. United, for example, has 79 757s of which 72 are at least 15 years old, and many more of them that are more than 20 years old. Delta has 129 757s more than 15 years old and American has 51 757s as old or older. Mechanically these airplanes remain sound and reliable. The cabin interiors have been regularly revamped with each new generation of inflight entertainment, but the basic plumbing that controls cabin climate can’t be upgraded.

At the same time, the arrival of two 21st-century airliners, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350, has been slowed or put on hold. Both have significantly healthier cabin climates that really enhance the passenger experience, particularly with air that is less dry. American originally intended to introduce the A350 three years ago, but has delayed delivery until 2020. Delta has canceled an order for 18 787s. United has delayed deliveries of the A350 until 2019.

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The age of U.S. airline fleets goes a long way to explain why American, United and Delta rank so poorly in the latest Skytrax annual ratings for the world’s best airlines: the highest rated of the three is Delta at 32 (35 in 2016), American is at 74 (77) and United at 78 (68). This kind of American exceptionalism doesn’t seem to bother the beancounters.

For passengers the future has been deferred because a huge fall in airline gas prices has lessened the importance to the airlines' bottom lines of a key virtue of the new airplanes, their greater fuel efficiency. Airlines are stacking up record profits: United, even after the execrable manhandling of Dr. David Dao, reported a 39 percent profit rise in the second quarter over the same quarter last year, to $818 million.

The old bangers underpin these profits because their capital costs are completely amortized. With sardine-can seating in coach, they will probably be flying for years yet.

With this in mind, is there a way of avoiding the worst cabins? There is good reason for passengers to select flights using a new filter, giving priority to the airplane itself. This won’t be possible on routes with little choice, but it can be the smart thing to do where there is a choice.

For example, there is a way to avoid the dreaded middle seat – by choosing an airplane that doesn’t have middle seats, and cannot have them because of the cabin architecture. Mostly that means looking for one airplane type, the Brazilian-built Embraer 175 and 190. These have two seats each side of the aisle.

You’ll most likely find these on inter-city flights that don’t generate enough traffic to justify the airline using a larger narrowbody like the ubiquitous Boeing 737 or the Airbus A320. Sometimes that demand will depend on the time of the day. For example, Jet Blue flies both the Embraer and the larger Airbus A320 on routes between the northeast and Florida, assigning them to a schedule decided by the volume of demand.

The Embraer offers one of the best antidotes to the shrinking seat in Jet Blue’s “Even More Space” rows. The pitch between rows – that’s the measurement between one seatback and the next – is 39 inches, plus one of the widest seats at 18.5 inches. The regular coach seat is the same width but the pitch is reduced to 32 inches, in itself not that bad.

American Airlines also fly Embraers, but with a tighter pitch of 31 inches and a slightly narrower seat at 18.25 inches. The worst squeeze on Embraers is by British Airways on their European inter-city flights, with a pitch of 30 inches and seat width of 18 inches. (Oddly, given the fixed width of the cabin, BA is adding the space taken from the seat to the aisle where it’s wasted).

Jet Blue’s three-by-three seating in the far more frequently used Airbus A320 is better than most competitors, with a pitch of 33 inches and seat width of 18 inches. Compare that to the notoriously punitive seating in the same airplane when you fly on Spirit: a knees-in-chest pitch of only 28 inches and width of 17.75 inches.

You can also play airplane seat roulette on some international flights. Both United and American fly the 787 Dreamliner. You can’t escape the middle seat in coach but you will notice the jet-lag defeating moister air and far better climate control and individual lighting. The seats get better if you go for Premium Economy: on American a seat pitch of 38 inches and width of 19 inches; on United of 35 inches and width of 17.3 inches (you can always bet on United being the stingiest in any dimension).

Delta is showing better intentions. In October they will begin flying the Airbus A350, with a slightly larger cabin than the 787 and equally improved cabin climate. The first route is Detroit to Tokyo. Details of the seating are yet to be revealed. Delta has also annoyed Boeing by placing a huge order for what is a rare phenomenon: an airplane designed from the start to give coach passengers a big break in comforts, the Canadian Bombardier CS300.

When Delta ordered more than 300 of these Boeing began an anti-dumping action against Bombardier because they cut Delta a below-cost deal to get the order. As the airline analysis group Flight Global said, “this is the most back-handed compliment one manufacturer can pay another.” It was also nakedly hypocritical: Boeing gave United a 73 percent discount on a large order for their 737.

Why does Boeing so fear the CS300? For one thing, Boeing is about to deliver the ultimate sardine-can in the form of its 737MAX-10 another warm-over of a 1960s jalopy. For another, there is the report on the CS300 delivered by Aviation Week when Fred George, its seasoned test pilot, flew it through its paces.

First, George noted the comforts of the cabin. There are three seats on one side of the aisle and two on the other. Aware of the stigma attached to the middle seat Bombardier made it a tad wider, at 19 inches. The other seats are still a generous 18.5 inches wide. Can you imagine, somebody thought the middle seat should, in George’s words, be made “more tolerable”?

He also pointed to luggage bins that are the largest for a single-aisle airplane, as are the windows, and a sound level barely above a whisper. As for flying the CS330, George reported, “I have yet to fly a jetliner with more docile yet responsive handling qualities.” All in all, he said, the Canadians had “raised the narrowbody bar significantly.”

Delta will start replacing its ageing fleet of MD-88s with the CS300, but not until late next year. Air Canada will begin flying the airplane late in 2019. In the meantime, if you’re booking a flight in Europe, Swiss International and Air Baltic are already flying the CS300 and the passenger reviews are enthusiastic.

And so the strategy to escape, if you can, the worst of coach is first to select an airplane where the airline can’t alter the basic seat layout, as in the case of the Embraer and CS300. With both Jet Blue and American that may mean being flexible and finding the time of day where the smaller airplane is scheduled on your route.

Secondly, look for the airplane that embodies the best cabin climate technology, as with the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350. Even if the coach seat is tight you will still notice the big difference that the air quality can make – and so far, at least, the airlines haven’t figured out a way to charge you extra for that.