What Airlines Don't Want You to Know About Legroom

There are plenty of reasons people hate flying: A fear of heights, long lines, having to lug around heavy bags, and stale pretzels.

But one complaint seems to come up more than the others: Legroom.

It doesn’t matter how friendly the flight attendants are, or how many channels the airlines offers on their in-flight entertainment system. If they feel the slightest bit squeezed, passengers have something to say about it.

Those cries have gotten louder recently as airlines, in an effort to cram more passengers into their planes, have added extra rows of seats.

The Airlines’ Perspective

Airlines don’t look at legroom in the same way most of their customers do – the distance between the end of the seat and the back of the seat in front. Instead, they use a tricky formula known as seat pitch, which is the distance between a specific point on a seat and the same point on the seat behind.

According to CNN travel columnist Brett Snyder, this formula is further complicated by the fact that seat sizes are not standard in the airline industry. Some airlines are even introducing slimmer seats, which means comparing the seat pitch between airlines is even harder.

So what’s a tall traveler to do?

First, learn the basics.

Seat pitch varies by the physical size of the airplane, class and the type of flight (shorter flights might have less legroom than longer).

According to seatguru.com, seat pitches in economy short-haul flights range from 28 to 38 inches, with most airlines falling in the 30-31-inch zone. The rule of thumb: More seat pitch is better.

The Hunt for Legroom
If legroom is an important factor to you when booking flights, there are several domestic airlines that offer extra room, including:

  • JetBlue (34-36 inches of pitch; for an extra $10 passengers can get an even more legroom seat with 38 inches)
  • United Airlines (31-34 inches for most economy seats; up to 35 inches for economy plus seats)
  • Virgin America (32 inches)

By comparison, seat pitch for short-haul first/business classes ranges from 31-58 inches, with most seats offering 37-38 inches.

Another factor worth looking at when deciding on a flight is the width of the seat. Seat widths can range from 16.5-25 inches.

Before booking a flight, check in with websites like SeatGuru and SeatExpert.com, which offer plane maps that allow you to compare specific seats on the flights you’re considering.

Doing a little research now might mean you can stretch out later.


Published: July 10, 2012