Economy Class, Done Right!

WHEN IT COMES TO ECONOMY CLASS GRIPES, it’s legroom, or lack thereof, that most people whine about. There’s less and less of it, as airlines cram in extra rows, eager to squeeze out every last penny of revenue in the face of razor-thin profit margins.

Or maybe it just seems that way?

Conventional wisdom holds that the typical economy section is tighter than ever before, with airlines cramming in ever more seats. Well, some are, some aren’t, and in fact row spacing hasn’t changed all that much over the past few decades. Spacing between rows is called “pitch” in the biz. Measured in inches, it’s the distance from one seat-back to the seat-back ahead of it. While it’s true that carriers have been tightening up the rear-most rows to accommodate those roomier (and more expensive) “economy plus” sections up front, average pitch has declined only slightly. JetBlue’s 34-inch standard is currently the most generous among US majors, where the average is 31-32 inches. That’s only an inch or so less than you would have seen 20 or 30 years ago.

Anyone who flew the old PeoplExpress remembers how pitiless and pitchless a cabin can be. Or Laker Airways, whose “SkyTrain” service ran between the US and London in the 1970s. Sir Freddie Laker, the airline’s flamboyant founder, configured his DC-10s with a bone-crunching 345 seats — about a hundred more than the typical DC-10 at the time.

If anything, the average cabin is slightly roomier than it used to be. Legroom is perhaps a bit less, but the cabin overall is wider and taller. The Airbus A380, for example, has the same ten-across floor plan as the 747, but is wider by approximately a foot, while six-abreast aircraft such as the popular A320 have a few more inches of head and elbow room than the 707s and 727s of old. And airlines have been moving to “slimline” seats with a thinner construction that in effect increases pitch by up to three inches per row. And for the record, airlines cannot simply wedge in as many seats as they want. There are restrictions based on the number of emergency exits (as well as the number flight attendants), and most carriers are fairly close to this limit as it stands.

If ever you’ve wondered how it is that airlines can so easily tinker with pitch, check out the floor the next time you fly. You’ll notice the seats are on rails. The hardware is usually covered with plastic caps, but you can clearly see how a row can be slid forward or aft with a minimum of fuss. Economy class seats appear to be cheap and flimsy, but in fact they have to meet all sorts of safety criteria, including G-load limitations. The attachment points on those floor tracks are exceptionally strong.

If you ask me, what makes economy class uncomfortable is only partly to do with legroom. It’s more about the shapes of the seats themselves, and the terrible ergonomics of the surrounding space.

Each time I settle in to an economy chair, I silently wonder what malformed extraterrestrial it apparently was designed for. “Settle in” is such the wrong term; you don’t attempt to relax so much balance yourself in place. The pressure points are all wrong, your legs are unsupported, there’s no place for your arms, and lumbar support is nil. The tray tables, the armrests, the storage pockets — everything is the wrong shape and in the wrong position. It’s irritating, because things could be a lot more comfortable through modest improvements in basic design.

The most obvious way to make economy more pleasant would be to have fewer seats in the first place, but this a nonstarter unless you’re ready to pay substantially more for your ticket. Engineers are also faced with the challenge of designing a frame that is lightweight and extremely strong, able to withstand several times the force of gravity. Nevertheless, there’s no excuse for the poorly designed seats we’re accustomed to. Through the use of high-tech materials and a bit of imagination, a seat can be safe, lightweight, sturdy, and comfortable all at once. Indeed, ergonomically sculpted seats from innovative manufacturers like Recaro and Thompson Solutions have been on the market for years. If only more carriers would buy them.

In addition to a seat that actually conforms to the shape of a human body, below are six things that ought to be standard in any economy class:.

1. Wider, adjustable armrests.

2. Lumbar support. Existing seats have little or no lower back cushioning. There is only a vacant space into which your lower back sinks, dragging down and contorting the rest of you.

3. Inflight wi-fi and on-demand, in-seat video with a personal screen of at least nine inches. I’m lumping these together because they both capitalize on the strategy of distraction — and that’s what keeping passengers happy is all about. Browsing the Web or watching a movie are ideal time-killers. (Anybody remember the magazine libraries that used to be on planes?) And while five or ten dollars for wifi isn’t unreasonable, it should be free in first or business.

4. An adjustable headrest. Not the half-assed kind that allow your head to loll around, but one that fits snugly, holding your head in place and allowing you to sleep.

5. A tray table that extends to reach the body, so a passenger needn’t hunch over to eat or work. Ideally the tray should have a curved leading edge to better fit your torso. Said tray should be the sort that unfolds from the armrest, not from the seat in front. This solves the hunch-over problem and avoids the hazard of having your computer crushed when the person in front of you suddenly reclines, pinching your screen between the table and the upper cushion. “Assault recliners” is my name for those passengers who come hauling back all at once, leaving you but a split-second to save your laptop from this deadly nutcracker.

Photo by Author

Tray tables also need a raised edge to keep food and beverages from spilling into your lap during climb or in rough air. Some have recessed cup holders, but many are perfectly flat and smooth, so that your coffee comes skating backward whenever the plane is nose-high. A quarter-inch ridge would prevent this. One assumes that cabin designers are more or less familiar with the concept of gravity; there’s no reason for such a tweak not to be universal. It wouldn’t cost more than a few pennies per tray, if anything. And while we’re at it, give us more of those ring-style cup holders that fold from the seat-back. They’re common in the rest of the world, but I’ve never seen one on a US carrier. They help prevent spills and free up space on your tray.

6. Power ports. If a full AC outlet is asking too much, at least give us a USB connection. You see them on larger long-haul jets, but at some point every plane ought to have them.

If you’ve already encountered one or more of these goodies in your travels, chances are it was aboard one of the better European, Asian or Middle Eastern carriers.

It has reached a point where an economy class seat in a foreign market is often on a par with a first class seat in the U.S. domestic market. I can vouch for that. My recent experiences aboard Korean Air, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Turkish Airlines, Thai Airways, and LanPeru, all in economy, were as good or better than many first class segments I’ve flown within the United States. What made them so was a combination of things tangible and intangible; both physical comforts and onboard staff who were exceptionally attentive. We’ll get to the latter in a moment. The former included things like extra-wide personal video screens with a comfortable headset, retractable footrests, seat-back USB connections, contoured tray tables and amenities kits.

Cathay Pacific’s long-haul planes have shell-style economy seats that slide forward rather than tip backward, so that even when fully reclined they do not interfere with the person behind you. In Thai Airways’ economy, hot towels are handed out before takeoff. They’re not the cotton facecloth version like you’d get up front, but more of a heavy tissue, dispensed from a microwaveable box. It’s a nice touch, and one that couldn’t cost more than a few dollars per flight. And every airplane was immaculately clean, from the seat pockets to the lavatories.

None of those things, you’ll notice, is especially luxurious. Honestly, in light of how inexpensive fares are, together with the razor-thin margins our airlines are forced to work with, luxury is out of the question. And that’s all right. What the airlines haven’t quite figured out yet, is that satisfactory service doesn’t have to be elaborate. The average passenger doesn’t expect to be pampered. What he or she expects and deserves are convenience, respectful employees, and a modicum of comfort.

And something else they want: workers who are polite and professional. While it may sound hackneyed, it’s also patently true that passenger allegiance is ultimately earned or squandered not through material comforts, but through the attitude and dedication of your employees. I’ll never say that anybody else’s job in this mad business is an easy one, but if airline workers, as a group, cannot muster the necessary levels of commitment, then something is systemically wrong and needs to be fixed before any of the rest will matter. Extra legroom, on-demand video, and free drinks are much appreciated, it’s true. But they’re all for naught when you’re dying of thirst in the middle of an overnight flight, with trash on your table from a meal that was served three time zones ago, because the flight attendants have spent the last five hours reading magazines in the galleys and ignoring the passengers. Or when a gate agent takes your boarding pass without so much as making eye contact. What I remember most about those flights aboard Korean, Cathay, Emirates, and the others was the attentiveness of the onboard crew. For the full duration of the flight, flight attendants were constantly coming up and down the aisles, asking if passengers needed water, coffee, juice, or anything else.

It is worth mentioning that in an industry where the average is six weeks, Singapore Airlines flight attendants endure five months of schooling. That is considerably longer than pilot training at most carriers. I am not suggesting that Singapore’s model is reasonable target for a U.S. major—it’s not. For any U.S. airline, hoping to emulate the Singapores of the world would be at best quixotic and at worst financially ruinous. But the deeper point is that an airline’s most valuable service asset is the professionalism, grace, and courtesy and of its staff. End of story.

Have a look at the photos below. The first shows economy class on a Korean Air 777. Look at the size of that video screen.  It’s touch-activated, or you can use the removable handset that you see just below it.  This handset also controls your reading light, cabin call, audio volume, etc. To the right of the handset is a USB port.  There’s an AC power port as well, below the armrest (not shown). To the left of the screen is a coat-hook.  The hook is also handy for hanging your headset.The fold-out cup holder is very helpful when you’re drinking a beverage and don’t need the whole tray in your lap.  And when you do, there’s a fold-out, double-hinged tray that’s adjustable forward and aft.  There are pillows and oversized blankets for all passengers.  The second picture shows the immaculate economy section on a Boeing 777 of Taiwan’s Eva Air.

Catering is another issue altogether. Outside the United States, hot meals remain common even on short flights. The following photos show economy class presentations on Sri Lankan Airlines,* Thai Airways, and the little-known Sky Airline (no “s” at the end) of Chile. None of these flights was more than three hours long.

Their shortcomings duly noted, I have to say service standards on US carriers are definitely getting better, having hit their nadir about ten years ago. We might never be on a par with the likes of Cathays and Singapores of the world, but things like WiFi, in-seat video, and decent buy-on-board meal options have become the standard.

One area still crying out for improvement, however, is that of cabin cleanliness. It’s tough for carriers to scrub things clean with minimal turnaround times, but there’s no excuse for the greasy armrests, dirty tray-tables and peanut-littered carpets that are unfortunately all too common.

Meanwhile, whether or not you’re comfortable back there in row 52, remember to get up and stretch at periodic intervals. With long-haul flying times now surpassing the gestation periods of many small mammals, there are growing concerns about an affliction known as deep vein thrombosis, or DVT, brought on by the immobilizing confines of an airplane seat. Also called “economy class syndrome,” it’s a condition where potentially lethal blood clots form in the legs and can spread through the body. Those with preexisting conditions (obesity, smoking) are at higher risk, but all passengers should avoid remaining sedentary for extended periods. Stand, stretch, take a walk up the aisle.

On Singapore Airlines’ 18-hour megahauls between the US and Singapore, passengers are encouraged to visit the plane’s inflight buffet lounge — a stand-up bar and socializing area laid out with snacks. More than just a perk, it entices people to move around at regular intervals. For those who wander in barefoot after sleeping, the buffet zone has a heated floor.


( * Looking at that Sri Lankan Airlines meal: It was all quite good, save for that silvery fish salad visible at lower left. Notice the inflight magazine, “Serendib.” This is from Sinhalese (and also Sanskrit), one of the languages of Sri Lanka language, and is where the word “serendipity” comes from.)

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80 Responses to “Economy Class, Done Right!”
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  1. John Maxwell says:

    How does Eva Air not have USB power ports for cell phone charging in economy class on the 777ER? Flew Pacific Cathy recently, as it was a great experience, USB power ports.

  2. Gustavo Garcia says:

    I knew a purchasing agent who intentionally shortened the two front legs of the visitor vendor’s chair to purposefully make him uncomfortable. Airline seat bases should have an upward angle, especially as the back reclines. Horizontal seats are horribly uncomfortable. The base should be a couple of inches longer. Calf support is basic in long haul. To me, upward butt angle and leg support is more important than pitch, wifi, power ports, even the food. Gustavo Garcia. Over two million miles traveled. Four Engineering degrees. Thank you.

  3. Infrequent Flyer says:

    I fly only periodically, always in economy. Perhaps it’s my destinations, choice of airlines, etc. but it seems I inevitably find myself in planes that not only are old, but that look, feel, and smell really old! In addition to having different/ better seats, it may be helpful if the interior of the cabins were designed/ decorated to provide the illusion of more space. I’m not an interior designer, but I know there are “tricks” for making small spaces appear more open. I always have to take a moment to calm myself down once seated. The feeling of claustrophobia is initially intense, and I’m only 5’6″! I find myself palming the ceiling to gauge how much space is above my head. I turn on the blower to change the environment, however subtly. The feeling of seatmates’ arms and legs touching me, the seat back of the person ahead (they always recline w/o asking), and then the tight fit of the seatbelt are the perfect medley for frustration. It takes a few reminders that I can, in fact breathe fine, coupled with a smooth take-off before I can quite let it go. I think it might go along way if the interior didn’t resemble a 1976 Pinto.

  4. Jenny cayzer says:

    This is a flight hammock that can be used in economy to support feet and legs, from infants to adults.
    It is classified by an accredited aeronautical engineer to be a ” carry on comfort aid ” . It is small and light at 480 grams and attaches to the arms of your tray table, (which are deceptively strong). Due to the way airline seats are engineered and the hammock is attached, it does not disturb the passenger in front. It is used in cruise flight only and is easy to setup and takes seconds to remove for landing. It is very adaptable and makes flying more comfortable , especially if you, or more importantly your children want to sleep

  5. wayne weeks says:

    Speaking for Canadian airlines, I have never been aware of any dirty, greasy, grimy or soiled arm rests. The aircraft and washrooms are always clean.
    I have always been met with smiles, eye contact and courtesy from all the flight crew.
    That’s where the good news ends.
    I have travelled to the orient and Europe on foreign airlines and the seating is considerable more comfortable. The food offered is always one to look forward to, even when I’m not hungry.
    The biggest grip I have with U.S. and Canadian flights for business and economy is you do not have sufficient room to rest ones head on the food table.
    The degree of tilt is so restricted it does not take the weight off your back. It’s torture on short and long flights.
    It would help if they offered seats with more room at reasonable increase without having to pay for first class amenities.

  6. Russell says:

    I am not sure that I agree with the razor thin margins that airlines make now. Online booking systems and databases allow airlines to regularly sell every last seat on so many flights. I mean when was the last time you got onto a plane and didn’t hear that extremely annoying comment “oh sir we are over full today” – how can they be over full? they are either full or not (yes I know that they can overbook) – anyway don’t feel too sorry for the airlines if they are not making money it will be down to bad management more than anything else.

  7. Andrew says:

    I found this to be true. Even though I had adequate legroom on my last several flights I found it difficult to get comfortable. It seemed that I had to balance myself in my set even when it was reclined. Once I put a pillow in behind my lower back and a folded blanket around my neck it was much better.

  8. RR3 says:

    I flew with Air India for 2 hrs. And the meal and lighting was fabulous compared to IndiGo

    • db cooper says:

      air india is supposed to be a full blown carrier as opposed to indigo which is a no frills one… and indigo still beats air india by miles.

  9. Rugby says:

    I flew with Thomas cook, easy jet, Monarch and Wizz air in Europe. Their new slimline seats are very uncomfortable. I’m only 5 foot tall. Looks like whether the person is tall or short these seats are not designed for comfort. My back ache awfully after the flights.

  10. Sabu Raghavan says:

    As a passenger who has very recently miraculously survived a DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis) attack I can only advice the passengers as to how important it is for you to move around periodically if your flight is more than 4 hours. A lot of passengers do not use the socks distributed by the airline crew in their in-flight kit since most of the passengers do not know these socks could help reduce the chances of you getting DVT if you wear it. It would be beneficial if the crew could educate the passengers on this during their in-flight safety announcements rather than saying “sit-back relax and enjoy the flight”…

  11. miguel osuna says:

    I believe a good improvement would be to raise the edge of the seat a little and sink the back of it a little. This would create a more “cradling” effect. I find that the main discomfort for me is how I start sliding forward little by little. The seats have the wrong angle.

    • Anonymous says:

      I have one of those foldable foot rest but find itof no pracitcal use–usually what I do now is make sure one aside of my carryon personalbag purse or laptop case hAS A HARD SIDE SO i USE THAT UNTIL landing then i STOW IT AWAY AGAIN.
      I am aware that pregnant women shouldnt fly
      in the last weeks before delivery–but there are people like me who are larger than average and would love for the plane designers to make the edge of the fold up food tray curved so the will better fit for folks like me. They dont lay flat enough on my tighs or lap to use for food

  12. Hong says:

    Footrest is a must for me, without it, my butt aches for the whole journey. I used to be able to sleep thru the 13 hours flight. Now I am awake for 13 hours because they have remove the footrest.

    • Mabel says:

      I have the same problem but I got an inflatable footrest and it helped a lot. I bought mine on Amazon. Tucks right into my personal item, deflated, and inflates quickly.

  13. Benjamin says:

    I too have flown EVA, Cathay and Korean in Economy and where available in PE, on their transpacific routes. I have recently done Norwegian’s PE product on their new 787s. Over the past few years I have also flown Business on Cathay and Emirates.

    Patrick is right – Economy on Korean and EVA are superior to domestic first class even taking into account flight length. First of all the wide-bodies are simply nicer. Consider this – I love flying the 777-300ER but that aircraft is outclassed by the new 787. Against them the aging A320 and 737 designs cannot offer the same quality of experience. You can re-engine them till the cows come home but passengers are still trapped in a narrow single aisle tube.

    On Korean Air’s 777-300ER, set pitch in Economy is 33-34 inches. As for food selection, outbound from Vancouver, they served Bibimbap – and it was a thrill to play a role in putting the meal together. EVA was pleasant in both Economy and PE.

    Business Class is wonderful, almost extravagantly so, but a good PE product is all one needs. I once did LAX – SIN non-stop in PE on SQ, and it was a very pleasant experience despite the length of the journey (and it was a very long journey indeed).

    For business reasons, more airlines are introducing PE cabins. They remind me of the old Pan Am Clipper Class seats.

  14. Mabel says:

    I think one thing that makes economy so uncomfortable is the lack of padding in the seats. On my first trip to London, I flew TWA (yes that was a long time ago LOL), and the seats were VERY comfortable. Now it’s like sitting in a stadium seat for hours at a time. And woe unto you if you’re tall with long legs. If you can’t get an exit row, you’ll be stumbling along like Frankenstein’s monster when you get off.

    I wish so much I could afford to fly business or first, but until I can (!), I’d rather pony up for premium economy for long-haul or overseas flights. My last trip was on a US airline, and PE isn’t very good on those. Non-US carriers, here I come!

  15. Ted HASSON says:

    have you seen THIS? It is AWESOME….every coach seat is FIRST CLASS!

  16. Serendib says:

    Serendib is an Arabic name for Sri Lanka. Serendipity comes from the Arabian Nights tale, the Three Princes of Serendip.

  17. Jeff Spicoli says:

    Most American flight attendants are haggard-looking/middle-aged/dowdy-looking old women…with about as much charm as my former Army Drill Instructor.

    Now…the Flight Attendants on Asian airlines? WOW–they all look like fashion models! They are all so sweet, respectful, and charming.

    Another thing: Ever notice the way the typical American passenger dresses? UGH! Mis-matched sweat pants…baggy/saggy pants…backwards baseball caps…faded/scummy jeans…untucked shirts or blouses…faded sweat shirts. YECCCCH!

    Contrast this with the typical Asian or European passenger: They may not be decked out in expensive high-fashion attire–but everything they wear is clean, matching, nicely casual. In other words, they don’t look like they’re going to the gym. Or to Walmart.

    • Al says:

      You nailed it!!!!

    • Angela says:

      Y’know Jeff, those sweet young asian hostesses are going to be middle-aged one day too, and with the hiring policies of those airlines, they’ll be out of jobs.

      I find the way in which the staff (particularly female staff) are paraded as fashion models rather distasteful. It implies that their major primary function is to be decorative eye-candy for passengers, rather than perform a service, requiring skill. Also, I realise that underneath the glamour is a restrictive policy about workplace appearance which has extremely strict rules on make-up, heels and hair. And yes there are rules for the male hosts’ appearance too, but it is not as onerous.

      • Patrick says:

        It is distasteful. But it’s also something of a myth. On my recent flights with Singapore, Asiana, Emirates, Cathay Pacific and Qatar Airways, there were plenty of cabin attendants, male and female, who did not fit the fashion model description, and who were well into their 40s or 50s. I personally couldn’t care less what the flight attendants look like, or how old they are. The delivery of competent and professional service has nothing to do with that.

    • asoka karu says:

      i have been flying emirates qatar ethihad cathay sri lankan as all were pretty well revied justifiably. i had the horrid very brief exposure to AA bussiness lounge at JFK airport in april 2015 as it wss (unfortunately for me )shared by qatar airways ( qatar uses the horrid AAlounge)
      entry was after a long queue , a dreary man saying helooo looking away.
      an antique stamp was banged on my bussiness ticket and another queue awaited for a sandwich. the geriatric waitress offerred me beef on avocado sanwich , i cannot eat as a hindu as she had run out of other options .( i seriously wonder whether there ever was any!) there as a cookie jar with every one poking hands in and out , soggy damp cookies.
      there was not enough seating as well.not a cat cared for any requst! i walked out throwing my lounge ( ha ha ha ha ) passes to the bin and sat out the next 3 hours at a restaurent in general area far more refined than the lounge ( hoots) .if this is the stte of the lounge i can only butimgine the state of aircraft and inflight service!
      i do not have the guts to step in to one ( old rust buckets MD80) like) having received a foul taster. Thanks AA and qatar for the favour of the insight!
      point ?
      I fully believe what you say , a third class train carrige is far more refined in switzerland!

    • asoka karu says:

      i have been flying emirates qatar ethihad cathay sri lankan as all were pretty well revived justifiably. i had the horrid very brief exposure to AA business lounge at JFK airport in april 2015 as it wss (unfortunately for me )shared by qatar airways ( qatar uses the horrid AA lounge)
      entry was after a long queue , a dreary man saying helooo looking away.
      an antique stamp was banged on my business ticket and another queue awaited for a sandwich. the geriatric waitress ofered me beef on avocado sandwich , i cannot eat as a hindu as she had run out of other options .( i seriously wonder whether there ever was any!) there as a cookie jar with every one poking hands in and out , soggy damp mudcakes.
      there was not enough seating as well.not a cat cared for any request! i walked out throwing my lounge ( ha ha ha ha ) passes to the bin and sat out the next 3 hours at a restaurant in general area far more refined than the lounge ( hoots) .if this is the state of the lounge i can only but imagine the state of aircraft and in flight service!
      i do not have the guts to step in to one ( old rust buckets MD80) like) having received a foul taster. Thanks AA and qatar for the favor of the insight!I think qatar does this purposefully to show people how grand their things are in comparison. even the poor Sri lankan airlines is grand in this respect too!
      point ?
      I fully believe what you say , a third class train carriage is far more refined in switzerland!

  18. Barry Gold says:

    I haven’t flown since 2006. Part of it is the TSA, even though I personally manage to avoid the worst part (long lines). My wife can walk reasonable distances, but getting from terminal entrance to gate is just too hard on her back, so we arrange for a wheelchair for her. That gets both of us through security pretty quickly, though you should see the inspection her CPAP gets — dusted with some sort of powder that’s supposed to detect explosive. Now that I use one too, that’ll be two of us getting that.

    No, the deal breaker was a flight home from Boston on AA. Something went wrong, impossible to say what, maybe in the rush to turn the plane around they hadn’t pumped out the waste tanks. Whatever the reason, the toilets stopped functioning. First at the rear of the plane, then in the middle. By an hour into the 5-hour flight, the cabin crew were allowing one person at a time into First Class to use the one lavatory there.

    And the smell…

    Combine that with the tight seating(*) and the food, the noise, it makes for a pretty miserable experience. And then there’s the likelihood of at least one screaming child nearby. Or having a child kicking the back of your seat. I’ve thought of threatening to tell the kid exactly what holds the airplane up if the parent won’t control his/her kid. (Answer: nothing but air. That should leave the kid too frightened to ever get on an airplane again.)

    (*) Again, we avoid the worst of it by buying three seats for two people. Much cheaper than upgrading to First or even Business class, plus we get an extra carry-on. Even so, if you’re behind somebody who wants to recline all the way and sleep, it gets pretty tight.

    We travel for pleasure, so we can pretty much choose where we go. Nowadays, if we can’t drive there, we don’t go, so no more than about 1000 miles from LA. Yes, this means we don’t see our friends in Boston, NY, and Baltimore as often, and OVFF in Columbus is a lost cause, but it also means a lot more comfort. Exception: we’re planning to take the train to Seattle next year, rent a car and drive to Spokane.

    If more people did this, the airlines would be looking at empty economy cabins and would make flying a lot more pleasant.

  19. Dave says:

    The most important thing to me and I believe to most passengers is seating. For domestic flights, in most cases, 31-32 inch pitch and 17 inch width is acceptable as very few flights are more than 4 hours in duration. However, there are very few international flights that are less than 8 hours. Many of the flights to Asia are between 12 and 15 hours. Most of the Asian airlines work hard to provide humane economy seating. Usually 34-35 inch pitch and 18-19 inch width. They also have seen fit to install Shell Type Seats which solves the reclining into the passenger behind you. The American and European carriers, for the most part, still continue with their 31-32 inch pitch and 17 inch width even on their international routes. To get decent seating domestically take Jet Blue or Virgin America. They seem to really care. To get decent seating internationally take one of the Asian carriers. They seem to really care. Just like everything in the US and in Europe, the don’t care attitude is prevalent.

    • FrequentFlyer says:

      I was a FA in Europe for 13 years. I was told I was too kind to passengers. I often went the extra mile because I realised passengers were cramped in their seats for hours on end, having to rely on FAs for food, drink, reading material etc. I was told off by colleagues for asking if passengers if they wanted anything else to drink. I worked in a department that was known for mocking the FAs, unless you were one of the gang who had sold your soul to making a fool of other colleagues and passengers. Crew scheduling in the company hated the FAs. FAs hated Japanese flights because the passengers were usually too polite. I’m not making this up.
      I know longer fly, one of the reasons being that I was no longer able to watch my colleagues being nasty to passengers.
      Never mind whose fault it is or what has happened, a simple and genuinely expressed “sorry” can heal many situations.
      Another company I flew for had a flight supervisor whose talent was making new colleagues cry. Everyone knew this, no-one did anything about it.
      Being an FA can be the best profession in the world, if you genuinely enjoy working with people. However, if your company and your colleagues are mainly non-supportive, the job can be pure misery. Same as many other professions, I suppose.
      Getting rid of the “don’t care” attitude in a company is worth it.

  20. TMM says:

    One problem with the seat back entertainment is when the passenger behind you constantly presses the touchscreen very hard to change channel, volume, etc. It makes for a bouncy headrest. Some planes have the IFE controls built into the armrest, which makes more sense.


  22. They usually have three classes of seat pitches. They’re called business, economy, and economy plus.

  23. Christophe says:

    Why not make 2 or 3 classes of pitches, according to the height of a person. Then assign seats accordingly. I am 5ft9 and was recently sitting next to an Asian guy who was merely 5ft6. While he was dancing with his legs, letting them move around freely, I was stuck with knees again front row.
    I mean, this is 2014, I’m sure there is a way to have a few rows for the smaller, and a few for the taller.

  24. Sandra says:

    Was curious about something…any ideas how the screen/monitor is attached to the seat for Korean Air?

    I’m trying to think of a way I could somehow “hang” my ipad mini over it in the event that I wanted to watch my own stuff rather than what’s available. Would rather have it at the same height so that I’m comfortable.

  25. Heidi Kohne says:

    Two things:

    Jon, the video systems I’ve used can be shut off, but you have to really look for it. Usually, press the brightness-down button until it actually shuts off and your brain will thank you for it!

    I’ve been on a couple of United flights recently that have AC outlets between the seats in economy! According to their airplane specs (found online), they seem to be upgrading their entire fleet to have wi-fi & AC power for the entire cabin.

    Now, if only the entertainment systems had music! (United’s system with DirecTV doesn’t)

  26. Elaine St. John-Lagenaur says:

    Several years ago we returned home to Mexico on Volaris. They fed us! WOW! It was a simple fruit and cheese plate, fresh, tasty, satisfying and (at least at that time) free. I’d rather eat something like this than have to buy some outrageously over-priced stale-tasting crud they’ll offer on a U.S. carrier. I also love the Volaris FA’s retro-styled plum-purple uniforms…very classy!

  27. Alan says:

    I have always wondered — how do the cockpit seats compare to the cabin seats? I have only sat in GA cockpits and you don’t have a lot of clearance. After all you do have to reach all the controls on the panel, walls, and overhead. What makes an airliner cockpit seat usable for 12 hour flights?

  28. Sili says:

    One area still crying out for improvement, however, is that of cabin cleanliness. It’s tough for carriers to scrub things clean with minimal turnaround times, but there’s no excuse for the greasy armrests, dirty tray-tables and peanut-littered carpets that are unfortunately all too common.

    Perhaps if the average flyer wasn’t such a disgusting pig, it would be easier for staff to clean. I don’t recall the last time I wasn’t embarrassed by seeing what state my countrymen think it’s acceptable to leave the cabin in. Frankly they deserve everything they (don’t) get.

    • Rod says:

      OK, here’s a question, a conundrum I face on practically every flight: what to do with that piece of refuse you wish to get rid of (used kleenex, piece of gum, whatever). Unless you’re willing to cram your own pockets with this kind of stuff, there’s no alternative to dropping it on the floor. (Is there?)

      What with shorty-short turn-around times these days so the airlines can squeeze every last dime of profit out of their aircraft and what with airlines like Easyjet dispensing with the need for cleaners by making their own hard-working crews fix the cabin during those short turn-arounds, it hardly seems fair to dump stuff on the floor. I don’t want to even think about the kind of mess they doubtless encounter at times.

      There’s got to be a better way.

      • Al says:

        I put my trash in the seat back pocket, not on the floor. Then, if the FA comes around to collect I hand it to them! Simple, no?

      • Mabel says:

        Rod, I keep a small Ziploc bag in my carry-on for anything I can’t give to the flight attendant (or in case I miss the trash collection for some reason). Then when I get off the plane, I can chuck it in the airport bins.

      • FrequentFlyer says:

        Take a small plastic bag or two with you for emergencies or request a sick bag. Fill it up with your rubbish then dump it at the end of the flight in a waste bin.

  29. NB says:

    Regularly flying UA in Economy Plus, I still feel cramped and, when I’m on an older one of their planes, it all seems rather sad but fairly comfortable, whereas the newer ones have bone hard seats and are very uncomfortable. But the other day I did a return trip on BA and had what appeared to be a very new plane one way and a very old plane on the way back. I recognise that the age of the fleet will vary hugely across all airlines, but what struck me most was the attitude of the FAs. I’m so used to United that I hardly notice the communist-era customer service training any more. But on BA they were polite and helpful and even smiled. Now, that’s what can make or break an economy class flight!

    Incidentally, I have enjoyed the seats on LX, which I gather LH also use, whereby the magazine rack is placed higher, thus increasing legroom. There did appear to be some lumbar support in these also and it was generally quite a clever arrangement. I understand that United will be placing some of these in their aircraft, but with harder cushions…..

    • Mabel says:

      I realize your comment is a few years old, but I’m flying BA for the first time soon and this makes me feel much better. I always get nervous the first time I try a new airline. If it sucks, you can’t exactly walk out in the middle of the flight, ha ha.

  30. miskidomleka says:

    I recently flew United 757s from US to Europe and back.

    Flying there, I think all Patrick’s items were missing. On the way back however, the interior was newer with pretty big personal touchscreens and a pretty big selection of movies, TV shows, and music.

    But they took away the “from the flight deck” audio channel… Very disappointing.

  31. Els says:

    Footrests in economy would make quite a difference for me, but what makes travel most uncomfortable for me are reclining seats. I never recline my seat at all, because I know how unpleasant it makes things for people sitting behind me, but I’m usually crushed by those in front of me. Shell-type seats are ideal, but I’m still more comfortable in non-reclining configurations than in the currently most common ones.

  32. Roger says:

    I’m 6’4″ (1m94) and look forward to the day when the headrests are anywhere near my head. They are usually a neck rest. I also have broad shoulders which I can’t do anything about, and so contort myself against the window when possible. Being able to order stuff via the IFE system would be great.

    Another problem with the tray tables is they are really low. They might be ok for shorter folk, but for me there is a considerable distance between the table and my mouth.

    I fly on SQ when possible, who seem to be the least worst. I’d be prepared to pay for premium economy which they won’t do. The Cathay slide forward seats are a no go because I have legs and knees and back – something they don’t take into account. Emirates (and other carriers) doing 10 abreast in the 777 is also an exercise in being squashed.

  33. Economy can be a real problem, Ryan air in the UK is especially bad. Not to mention the food which is barely edible!

    Looks like they and other could take not of this standard of Economy.

  34. Mark Richards says:

    Pitch is an acronym used in electronics and refers to “pins per inch”. A connector or socket may have 10 pitch, or 0.1″ spacing. Give the prevalence of SI units, pitch is sometimes most horribly combined into the inept phrase, “2 mm pitch”.

    So for seats per inch, maybe sinch is more like it. And if seats per millimeter, sperm will do quite nicely.

  35. Diana Hale Wilson says:

    Patrick I love most of your inputs here; common sense – nay common decency – certainly would go a long way with domestic carrier’s plane design. Your comment about arising, stretching, and strolling hit home in particular for me (two herniated lumbar discs). I’ve flown VA more than others recently, and although their planes are newer & cleaner, and with superior technology too – their in-flight staff seemingly are expert sadists. My simply wanting to STAND for a few minutes, fore or aft (galley adjacent), has invariably brought on inappropriate, excessively threatening language: “you can’t be here; it’s against FAA laws; we can have you arrested”, etc. Has the time come where I must produce a doctor’s note when I fly, explaining that being forced to remain in your awful chairs for anything >3 hours puts me in emergency room-worthy straights?!

  36. Jon Margerum-Leys says:

    One thing that would be handy for the video screens is an off switch that worked. Yesterday I flew on Delta and was subjected to a barrage of ads inches from my face, with no way of turning the screen off. I understand that an override would be needed for safety messages, but I shouldn’t be forced to watch an actor portraying Abraham Lincoln shilling automobiles.


  37. Dick Waitt says:

    One item I didn’t see discussed is what I would call “horizontal pitch”, the distance side to side between seats in the same row.

    I can’t imagine being situated between two plus-sized individuals for a long flight; it’s bad enough in a movie theater where you may be able to move to a different seat, but on a long, full flight moving to a different seat would be next to impossible. It’s got to be difficult for those plus-sizers as well.

    I realize this is primarily dictated by the physical cabin dimensions as well as minimum aisle widths, but I can imagine the discomfort for all concerned.

    Give me the days of removable arm rests and not-full flights, when you could remove one or two rests and lie down on a red-eye flight. I have had that experience, but it’s been a long time…

  38. Anil Pillai says:

    One airline missing in this article is Qatar Airways – current #1 2 years in a row if I remember right. They are very good, very clean and roomy.

    I usually choose between Emirates and Qatar for my flights to India – and they both have been excellent, although I could feel Emirates slipping over the past few years. Almost like they grew too big too fast.

    Great article, Patrick!

  39. Curt Sampson says:

    One thing I noticed when looking at an Air New Zealand advert. was that they let you order drinks and the like via the touchscreen in front of you.

    I’d not thought of this before, but it seems like a complete no-brainer to have everywhere possible. Clearly this would reduce staff workload, thus leading to better service. (Though I’m guessing not to a reduction in staff, since I would guess that many airlines are already operating a the minimum number of FAs that safety regulations require.)

    It’s not as if the technology isn’t there: Japanese restaurants have been using at-table touch screen ordering systems for years, and even U.S. restaurants have had such systems available for staff for at least a couple of decades now.

  40. Jim Houghton says:

    There has to be a reason for the lack — no, the total absence — of lumbar support in airline seats. Most modern cars have adjustable LS, I mean it’s just too well-known an issue for hundreds of thousands of seats to be manufactured with less than no support. There has to be some economic benefit to the airline of shaping the seats as they do, but I’m damned if I can figure it out.

    • Planes, trains, and automob... says:

      “There has to be a reason for the lack — no, the total absence — of lumbar support in airline seats.”

      Comes down to weight issues and the cost of fuel.

      Five extra pounds of padding per seat times 200-300 seats per plane, means a lot of extra permanent weight that must be carried around on every flight segment, and will add to the cost of transport and make every ticket price higher.

      As long as travlers are more convened about ticket price above all other concerns, we’ll see less padding in seats, less free food, less free drinks, more after-purchase add-on fees, that help to reduce unnecessary extra weight and/or help capture extra revenue.

      Economy Plus seating with the extra padding, power ports, etc would be a great product for the airlines.

      All things being equal, travelers would like the extras, but wouldn’t want to pay for them. Many travelers will still pick the lowest price, no matter the available extras. So it is imperative to offer low economy fares, than offer the enhancements at point of purchase or after purchase as extras.

      That’s why the airlines are nickel and diming us to death. We insist on it.

      • Planes, trains, and automob... says:

        > “ergonomic seats”

        The key is availability of ergonomic seats that cost no more than normal airline seats (or about the same) and that weight the same as traditional airplane seats (or preferably that weigh even less) and still meet the safety regulations.

        Just the existence of heavy, expensive ergo seats is like they don’t even exist.

        An ergo seat that is lighter and cheaper, would be a killer product. It would be potentially quite profitable. Not only for the maker of the seats, but also for airlines that install the seats as a product differentiator from other airlines. “Every seat feels first class, even in economy.” Would almost make up for traveling in sardine can class, where passengers are packed in as tightly as possible.

  41. Carlos Bonilla says:

    I’ve always thought that one simple accommodation would make the inflight experience saner. Why don’t airlines provide lids for their beverages? It would minimize spills and give you a better chance of arriving at your destination with clean clothes.

  42. Jaime says:

    I have the unfortunate experience of traveling American airlines 757’s to South America, usually Bolivia, a couple of times per year. These are 5-6 hr flights on cramped dirty planes (don’t even think about using the bathrooms after hr #3), no IFE, surly flight attendants, etc. I would kill for a reasonable alternative but American currently has a lock on Bolivia with Aerosur closing shop, and every other option requires 3-4 legs and crazy total trip times. All this and only $1,200 round trip…I could cry looking at those photo’s…

  43. Tom Hill says:

    My wife and I have lived in Asia for eight years. After four years of flying Cathay, we decided to save some money and fly Vietnam Air/American back to the U.S. for the summer and American/ANA back in the fall. The Vietnam Air and ANA flights were fine. Clean, new equipment and very sweet staff. The American flights were in dirty, old equipment; the FAs went out of their way to remind us that they were “here to insure your safety, but will help you if we can, if you ask, maybe.” Never again will we fly across the ocean in an American carrier.

  44. Lisa in Toronto says:

    I don’t really want wifi on a plane – my office may expect me to be available for a Skype conference or to answer their email right now. My book, knitting and music/podcasts will suit me very well. Sometimes I even write postcards on planes …
    I did not realize until recently that USB and power ports are not usual.
    I recently flew Air France and Air Mauritius. Both were absolutely fine, although without USB or power outlets. Both offered touch-screen TVs in the seat backs. Air France offered decent hot mini baguettes and champagne in economy – this was a trans-atlantic flight not a short European jaunt. Air Mauritius staff were so friendly! One flight attendant was concerned because i hadn’t eaten much of my meal – she commented that my tray was heavy when she collected it. Both airlines came up with decent vegetarian options whether based on Western pasta or South Asian rice. They had drinks available in the galley all night. Both provided eye shades and Air Mauritius also offered socks and toothbrushes. Air Mauritius offered local jam (papaya-vanilla) and fruit juices, as well as French cheeses. I should also note that both airlines had lots of staff – Air Canada generally does not have enough staff in economy on long-haul flights.
    I remain amazed at the Emirates A380 on-flight cleaning crew even in economy. I have not see that anywhere else – perhaps it exists on other carriers using A380s.

  45. Bruce says:

    @Ann Harbeson,

    I completely agree. I am … umm … cuddly. And I hate it when tables fold out of the armrest. I’d much rather have the option, if there’s no-one next to me, or if family members are next to me, to spread under a conventional armrest a bit. But I would of course always be careful not to impinge on the space of the person next to me if it’s not someone I’m related or married to.

    The other thing is that I have two young kids. On a long-haul, or even medium-haul, flight, it’s good if they can lie down – two of them next to each other, with their heads on my lap, can easily fit across their two allocated seats. And for that, you need to be able to fold the armrests away.

    And that brings me to another thing. On most economy-class seats, if you fold the armrests up, they still sit a couple of inches proud of the seat back. So even if you’ve got three seats to yourself (it’s happened to me a couple of times recently on SQ), you can’t spread out properly. Armrests that either fold all the way up behind the seatback, or that fold down beneath the seat squab level, would be a vast improvement.

    And Patrick, you’re right about power points. On SQ and KE recently, it’s been lovely not to have “range anxiety” on my smartphone.

  46. I was going to mention that same thing Daniel Sparing has said – hot meals seem to have disappeared in Europe too. I recently took a 2.5 hour flight and the only food/drink offered on either leg of the journey was from the refreshment cart, and had to be purchased at inflated prices.

  47. Unfortunately, hot meals on short (1.5-3h) flights are also a thing of a past in Europe, also on flag carriers. Sometimes “free” food is so little that I’d prefer to pay for something better.

  48. Msconduct says:

    In economy long haul, especially overnight, is miserable no matter what the airline or the amenities. Air New Zealand have a new take on it, though – the Skycouch. It’s cheating a bit as you have to pay for three seats for two people, but it allows you to lie down in relative comfort without paying $8,000 for a business class ticket. (It’s a tight squeeze for two people – hence its local nickname “cuddle class”.)

  49. Steve Cross says:

    The thing that really bugs me about a short “pinch” is when a passenger cannot get into the seats in a standing-up position. When you have to go in sideways and with a bend at the knees and hips to conform to the seat back in front of you, you do know how sardines feel.

  50. Ken says:

    While I agree that the pitch has not changed much in recent years, I do vividly remember flying Western Airlines in the early 80’s; their marketing theme was “three feet for your two feet”. Elongated billboards near SLC and LAX had a business passenger in recline mode with their legs extending beyond the edge of the structure. And, champagne for everyone on board. As their commercials said: it truly was “the only way to fly”.

  51. James says:

    I usually fly business or first, but was recently on SAS in economy (EVE-OSL is all coach.) SAS was just like a US airline; everything has a cost, the seats are small and packed, etc.

    My real complaint with coach seats is not the legroom, but the shoulder width. 17-inches is not enough; I am very broad shouldered (23 inches.) But more to the point, the average adult male is 19-20 inches from the outside of a shoulder to the other shoulder. Women ate 17-18 inches. Three adult males are squeezing 60 inches of shoulder into 51 inches of space. Throw in someone above average, and it is really cramped.

  52. flymike says:

    The Korean Air 777 seat looks great but I doubt it would hold up for more than a week of flying the typical American passenger.

  53. Mike Friedman says:

    The sad thing about all of this is it wouldn’t take much in the way of expense to do some focus groups and hire interior designers who think about this sort of thing.

    Good design isn’t complex (as the Korean Air seatback shows) but thoughtful design can make an enormous difference in passenger comfort and happiness.

  54. Ann Harbeson says:

    Agree, agree, agree. Except for the bit about tray tables in the armrests. It works in “higher” classes because the seats are wider, but in economy they take up too much width and are too solid. The space under a flip down arm rest is essential for sharing seat space with folks even a little wider than sveldt. And for those same folks, sitting between two fixed table arm rests is not comfortable even when possible. Arm rests that flip up also better accommodate people too short to use the fixed ones comfortably. A seatback tray table that slides toward the body is a better solution (and I really like that fold down cup holder on under side of the tray table idea.)

  55. Misha says:

    Great points. One thing not mentioned – the height of the armrests. I am a reasonably proportional 6’/180lb middle-aged man, quite average, but I notice that the armrests for me are a little too low to be comfortable. As a result, I slouch, compressing the torso in order to rest my elbows. Several hours of that posture really compound the discomfort.

  56. Martin says:

    In-flight entertainment can come with a huge tradeoff. I was recently on a Brussels Airlines A330, sitting in the window seat on a flight from Brussels to Kigali. The control box for the entertainment system took up half of the allotted legroom. This was a pretty long flight, and by the end, had hunting knives been allowed on board, I was in so much pain that I would have hacked off my own left leg.

    I spent much of the trip, in a remote area of Burundi, trying to change my return seat to an aisle. When the internet and power grid were working, the Brussels Airlines website was non-functional. Thankfully, I was able to email someone in Europe who was able to Skype the Brussels Airlines US number and get the seat for the return changed.

    My best hope for an economy class trip (99% of my flying experience) is usually that you forget everything about it the minute you step off the plane. That Brussels Airlines flight, though… my leg starts to ache just thinking about it.

    PS: Nominee for best inflight meal service: Jet Airways. A fairly short flight from Chennai to Delhi has a choice of excellent North Indian or excellent South Indian vegetarian. It’s the rare flight when you think, “Do we have to land already?”

  57. PK says:

    “For those who wander in barefoot after sleeping, the buffet zone has a heated floor.”

    I wear slip-ons when traveling by air and would never walk around a cabin, even an exceptionally clean one, barefoot or with socks. Men (usually) “miss” in the lavatory or water is spilled and when your feet are wet, yuck! Even clean airplanes are full of germs from all around the world.

    • Sam says:

      Not necessarily…

      Firstly, roaming around the cabin in bare feet or in socks doesn’t bother me at all, my feet are my feet and I don’t tend to be putting them anywhere near other components of my body. Secondly, most cabins are stupendously clean. Air con venting completely revenilates the canon every 7 seconds using 2 packs located in the aft and forwards area of the plane. The engines get air from the unpressurised and thin air whitch is gennerally extremely sterile, pressurises the cabin. If your concerned about toilet cleanliness, don’t worry, your feet shouldn’t be too dirty (except for us males!)

      Hope this gives some help!!!