Airlines shrink legroom

As airlines squeeze more seats into coach, travelers have to do more legwork to get the best seats. Here are 7 tips.

By MSN Money Partner Aug 24, 2012 8:49AM

This post comes from Kelli B. Grant at partner site SmartMoney.

 

SmartMoney on MSN MoneyFlying isn't getting any cheaper, and travelers who don't book carefully may find that they're paying more for a less-comfortable experience.

 

Image: Passengers on an airplane (© Image Source/Getty Images)Airlines have been adjusting their cabin configurations in recent months to fit more passengers, often resulting in a tighter squeeze for those in coach. Earlier this month, JetBlue announced it had expanded legroom in new premium rows on some Embraer E190 aircraft -- at the expense of an inch lost in the rearmost 11 rows. In January, Southwest began adding six seats to each plane, a change that also reduced legroom by an inch.

 

Industrywide, the average seat offers 31 inches of legroom, down from 32 inches just a few years ago, says Rick Seaney, chief executive of fare-tracking site FareCompare.com. "There's no doubt: If you're tall, you're paying more and you're feeling less comfortable for it," he says.

 

But comfort may be compromised by more than just reduced legroom, says Jami Counter, a senior director for seat-rating site SeatGuru.com. Airlines have also been replacing seats with thinner, lighter models. (Earlier this week, United announced it would use such seats to add an extra row of seats to planes next year, saying the thinner design wouldn't reduce legroom.)

 

Some of the new seats aren't as comfortably padded as others. "There are some that are incredibly thin -- not quite like a mesh office chair, but you're getting pretty close to that," he says.

 

If there's good news for travelers, it's that the changes will be slow to appear. Most of the changes are coming in with new aircraft over the course of a few years, says George Hobica, the founder of AirfareWatchdog.com. Reconfiguring existing planes takes time, too, since it's not simply a matter of adding a row of seats -- airlines must also add extra oxygen masks, lights and air vents. "It's not something they could do overnight," he says. (Post continues below.)

Even as airlines play musical chairs, experts say there are plenty of things travelers can do to end up in a great seat by takeoff:

 

Compare carrier amenities

There's a lot of variation in standard coach amenities, which can make a significant difference in comfort -- especially on long flights. If fares are close, that might be your next comparison, says Seaney. Domestic carriers' basic economy seats range in pitch from 28 inches (Spirit) to as much as 33 inches (Southwest, some JetBlue aircraft), and in width from 17 inches (including Alaska Airlines, Allegiant and Delta) to 19.7 inches (Virgin America).

 

Some also offer seat-back or shared TVs and Wi-Fi, which can help mitigate the sardine effect. (You can compare cabin maps and amenities at SeatGuru.com, SeatExpert.com or SeatPlans.com.)

 

Review seat ratings

When picking your seat at booking, compare open seats against ratings at SeatGuru.com or its competitors. The sites note which seats don't have windows and whether they recline, as well as other compromising factors like the proximity to bathrooms and the presence of tray tables in the armrests, which can make seats feel like a tighter squeeze.

In most cases, airlines have already identified the best of the bunch as premium seats they can charge extra for, Counter says, but there are still a few opportunities to get good seats without paying an upcharge. For example, some cross-country American Airlines flights use aircraft configured for international flights, resulting in a few standard economy seats (such as in row 17 on its Boeing 767-300) with extra legroom and recline.

 

Sit up front

Or at least, avoid the very back. "When you're in row 38, the seat seems a little less wide, and it really is," Hobica says. "Seats get narrower closer to the tail of the plane." In most aircraft, seats in the last three rows or so are a full inch narrower. Seats in the last row don't recline, either.

 

Weigh paid upgrades

Fees for picking a seat range from $1 to $99, but what you'll get for that cash varies. On a few airlines, including Allegiant and Spirit, there's a charge simply to pick a seat at booking rather than be assigned one at check-in, while U.S. Airways charges extra for window and aisle seats toward the front of the plane -- although most don't have any additional legroom.

 

Counter says consumers are likely to get the best upgrade values with United, Delta and JetBlue, whose upgraded seats include extra legroom and in some cases, additional recline.

 

Angle for a free upgrade

Some travelers might not need to pony up for a better seat after all. Airlines often upgrade elite frequent fliers to premium economy seats if there aren't any in business or first class available, Seaney says. "Special class" customers like active-duty military or honeymooning couples may also be able to snag an upgrade, although the odds are a little longer. "In the past, they would have been upgraded early, but now the airlines are waiting to see who pays for it," he says.

Try, try again . . .

In theory, the earlier you book, the better your chances should be of getting a prime seat. In reality, though, it's no guarantee. Airlines may block off some coach seats even if the flight isn't yet full, as a way to encourage more consumers to upgrade, Hobica says. Travelers can log in to the booking site or airline site to review their trip details, and should continue to do so periodically as their trip approaches to see if a better seat has opened up.

 

If you only check back once, do it 48 hours before departure. That's when many elite fliers get their upgrades, which could also free up some great economy seats, he says.

 

. . . And try at least once more at check-in

"You have to basically, if you're a cheapskate, be right on check-in at 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds before departure," Seaney says. "That's when they release all the seats." It's also worth asking at the check-in counter, or at the gate. Plenty of airlines cut the prices of their premium offerings at the gate, letting you get a better economy seat, or even a business- or first-class one, for a reduced rate. (But be warned: Sometimes the gate rate is full price.)

 

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18Comments
Aug 24, 2012 2:38PM
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if you went into a restaurant and they frisked you and stripped search you, charged you for a chair to sit on, pay extra for silverware, and condiments, water, napkins. would you still go back? 
Aug 24, 2012 1:53PM
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Hell! why dont they just put us on pallets.
Aug 24, 2012 1:46PM
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Only in America can you be treated like this by the Airlines.  Anywhere else they would lose business.  I dont even want to be a shareholder of these airlines because of the service and product they push out seems to get worse and worse and they ask for more money.  There is no perceived improvement whatsoever by the customers.
Aug 24, 2012 4:29PM
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When I got my first car, and airlines started charging for a 1st checked bag . . . I stopped flying.  I'd rather drive my car to a U.S./domestic location and pay for my own fuel, extra weight due to luggage, and food.   I personally feel it's better than consistently losing legroom, having to pay high prices for the airline's food and drink, extra fees for my luggage, having someone recline into my lap, or be stranded on the tarmac for any reason.
Aug 24, 2012 2:51PM
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Next you will be asked to fly in a tuck position...arms around your knees to kiss your @$$ goodbye

 

Aug 24, 2012 2:32PM
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When Pigs Fly! Oh, they are flying pigs!

Aug 27, 2012 4:57PM
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I just thought my legs were getting longer. It's to the point where you can't even use a laptop in the cheap seats, anymore. No wonder so many people are buying iPads.

Aug 24, 2012 5:07PM
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Flying sucks canal mud!  Hope to never fly again until we return to post deregulation seating.  Thanks to all the Rethuglicans who brought us financial scams we will live with for many decades and tight airliner seats!!  Ever so much!
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