Economy class seat survey
Flying sardine class you can still stretch your legs. Up on top, things start at the bottom. Who has the widest economy class seats? And now, there's Premium Economy too.
updated by Charley Lanyon
SHOEHORNED like an American bison in a Barbie Doll seat, 30,000ft aloft on an interminable nonstop to New York, wondering how you’ll ever extricate yourself to get to the loo before the post-movie rush? Well, it’s time to whip out the measuring tape and get to the bottom of things. How wide is your seat really? How much footsie space do you have in front of you? Does your seat actually recline or must you travel in the brace position all the way to New York? Finally, an airline economy class seat survey with all those niggling details.
Let’s face it though. You’re travelling economy so stop whining and do something about it – like toss your boss (or husband, or whoever bought your airline ticket) out of a high floor window. This is cattle class, back of the bus. Get real. You won’t find acres of rugby space back here, or a comfy love seat to share with your wife, or left butt cheek – just a few inches of valuable real estate. And every inch counts. Let’s check out those seats in the back.
Let’s start with legroom. In airline parlance this is called “seat pitch”. Specifically this refers to the space between each seat anchor, row by row. This can fluctuate even in the same class especially as you move further up to the nose or tail of the aircraft. Wide-body aircraft, like the businessmen who fly them, are widest around the middle. Cabin space is restricted at either extremity and this can affect both seat pitch and seat width – unless you’re flying business or first, of course.
Economy class seat pitch in either Boeing or Airbus aircraft hovers in the 31 to 34-inch range, with a few of the economy ‘plus’ ranges offering a half-way-to-business-class 38 inches. It is, however, a fallacy to assume that a fat B747 will offer more legroom than a smaller A330. Space depends on the airline’s configuration. A couple of airlines stand out from the crowd.
The Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) long-haul mega-carrier, the Airbus 380-800 flies from Singapore nonstop to London, Paris, Zurich, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and New York's JFK (rating it one of the longest nonstops to New York), with soft-focus sarong-clad lovelies. Economy class seats weigh in with a 32-inch seat pitch, 18.6 inches of width and a 115-degree recline. But who needs seats on an aircraft this size anyway? Go for a stroll, and don’t forget to carry a map. The B777-300ER in a 3-3-3 configuration offers a 18.6-inch seat width and a 115-degree recline. Power supply is available in most seats – two for every three seats or three for every four seats – and the PTV screen size is 10.6 inches. Seats also have USB ports. Sadly cattle aren’t welcome on the A340-500 show-pony express, which is business-class only.
New Singapore Airlines economy class seats roll out September 2013 on new B777-300ER aircraft on the Singapore-London route with more stretch room and leg room. The seat-back includes side bolsters for better body support with an ergonomic head cushion. KrisWorld entertainment is viewable on an 11.1-inch touch-screen screen. The new KrisWorld is based on a state-of-the-art Panasonic Avionics platform. SIA is the launch customer for the next-gen eX3 system that debuts on the A350s, with the current B777-300ERs boasting several eX3 features.
Some Boeing 777s on some Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) routes offer the additional distraction of a nosewheel camera that will have you riveted during take-off and landing. It’s not too bad for boning up on geography either on a clear day. Cathay B777s offer 18.5 inches of seat width, the same as British Airways’s World Traveller Plus (www.britishairways.com) section. Now that’s value for money. The CX B777s, A330s and A340s tend to have a seat pitch of 32 inches. The new economy class on Cathay Pacific offers several additional in-seat features to keep the back well supported and, perhaps, massaged. If knee room is an issue on the old Y Class, whip out the magazines from the seat pocket in front of you and, presto, you’ve got three spare life-saving inches. The new economy class stores your magazines under the seat. Cathay's new Premium Economy Class (1 April, 2012) has re-engineered seats with a pitch of 38 inches and improved width and recline. The seats are located in a separate cabin and Premium Economy flyers gain larger pillows, noise cancelling headphones, toiletry kits and a welcome glass of champagne. The Premium Economy experience extends to the ground where passengers can expect a dedicated check-in window, greater baggage allowance and priority boarding. Premium economy passengers will also accrue 110 percent Club and Asia miles.
The Emirates (www.emirates.com) B777 and A380 offer a comfortable seat pitch of up to 33 inches, while Kingfisher’s (www.flykingfisher.com) A330, Philippine Air’s (www.philippineairlines.com) A340-300, B777-300ER, B747-400 and A330s and Asiana Airlines (us.flyasiana.com) B747-400s and B777-200s stretch a wee bit more to 34 inches of leg room. The same pitch is also available on the Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) fleet, with the A340-500 offering a happy-ending 42 inches in Premium Economy, one of the best in this economy class seat survey, beaten only by the 46 inches of legroom offered in a Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) B777 Premium Economy seat. Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy weighs in with 38 inches of stretch space.
Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) offers from 30 inches to a generous 34 inches of point-and-flex space as well. MAS economy seats additionally offer manually adjustable lumbar support as well as decent seat-back PTVs measuring up to 9 inches. Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) mixes things up with seat pitch varying from 31 to 35 inches across its fleet. Luck of the draw really.
Garuda Indonesia (www.garuda-indonesia.com) added a brand new B737-800NG in 2011 to its fleet on the Hongkong-Jakarta route (flying in conjunction with an A330-200) and the Hongkong-Bali (Denpasar) route. These aircraft offer a respectable seat pitch of 31 inches and 32 inches respectively, but the 103-degree recline leaves a bit to be desired. Fast-expanding budget airline AirAsia (www.airasia.com) tosses in a seat pitch of 31 to 33 inches with seats averaging a little over 16 inches in width with a 115 degree recline (on longhaul AirAsia X aircraft).
The confusion starts with the introduction of intermediate classes; the aforementioned Premium Economy seats, Plus or Super Economies that are vigorously colonising aircraft cabins. If you’re in search of the widest economy class seats and maximum leg room, make this your preferred hunting ground.
With the clamour for legroom and seat width, Premium Economy class is finding its way onto more airlines, usually on long haul international routes, offering about five more inches of legroom and a couple of extra inches of bottom cushion space. While Premium Economy seats are generally around 50 percent cheaper than business class, they may cost almost double the economy price depending on booking period or route. However, depending on load factor and perhaps a shorter purchase lead time, the variance may be just around 10 to 20 percent. Some airlines that are experimenting with this product are Air France, Air New Zealand, ANA, JAL, British Airways, Qantas, KLM, Scandinavian Airlines, Thai Airways, Turkish Airlines, United and Virgin (including Virgin Blue). ANA’s Premium Economy is now available on B777-300s flying between Narita and Los Angeles, Washington DC, Chicago, and Munich. In several cases these seats are in a separate cabin, as on Air New Zealand, Virgin, Air France, Qantas and BA. Seat pitch on Air New Zealand climbs up to a possible high of 40 inches depending on aircraft. Look forward to better food in some instances as well as priority boarding.
Cathay Pacific has joined the fray and Premium Economy seats are being ushered in on all of its long haul aircraft: Boeing 777-300ERs, B747-400s, Airbus 330-300s and A340-300s. By sometime 2013, Premium Economy seats will be selling on 87 aircraft featuring better meals, enhanced service and far more seat width and leg room on routes from Hong Kong to North America, Europe and Australia. The seats should be the equivalent of regional business class and worth the extra green rustle.
Generally speaking, Turkish Airline’s (www.turkishairlines.com) Comfort Class beats the rest of the world with a bit more than a hypnotic belly dance to boast 46 inches of seat pitch – that’s about the biggest leg room space for a good stretch that you are likely to get. The Turkish delight continues with cushy seats measuring 19.6-inches in width and personal TVs with 10.6-inch screens that pop out of the armrest. There are also plug-in points for USB devices and iPods. If the thought of all those rippling tummies leaves you breathless, put your feet up on your very own leg rest, which you’ll find stowed neatly under the seat. Comfort Class is currently available on B777s only.
Whatever is said about the in-between classes, the big daddy when it comes to Economy class legroom is Qantas (www.qantas.com.au). Forget the noise about surly service and remember this is Australia – you get what you’re given. Which, in terms of leg room in Premium Economy on newest fleet addition A380 is up to a humungous 42 inches. This will have seven footers packing their bags and heading straight for Sydney. The new A380, what Lesley Grant, Qantas Executive Manager, terms “an aircraft that will remain the flagship of the Qantas Group” has 332 Economy seats and 32 Premium Economy seats.
In the seat pitch Olympics, Thai Airways comes in joint second, matching Qantas with a generous 42 inches in the A340-500 Premium Economy section. Regular economy class seats on the THAI A380-800 are bright, in variegated purple and pink shades with more knee room and a powder grey cabin. Expect mood lights, USB power, quick-reaction smiling staff who seem pleased to present their "new baby", ergonomic chairs, a wider LCD screen with a good mix of inflight entertainment and location maps (with camera views), and a seat configuration of 3-4-3 in the lower deck and 2-4-2 in the upper deck. Upper deck seats 76AB and 76JK offer bulkhead leg stretch and cosy twosome window corners. Air New Zealand’s Pacific Premium Economy sneaks into third place with a 41-inch seat pitch, nine inches of seat recline and food that wouldn’t taste out of place in business class.
Those who would rather fly without someone's elbow wedged into their rib cage can take advantage of Air New Zealand's "Twin Seat" deal, which offers you the neighbouring seat for a bargain price. For example, buy a ticket from Hong Kong to London and pay a small premium for the second seat. The downside is that you can't book the extra seat in advance, only at check-in. This deal is subject to availability and Twin Seats are only available on selected routes.
Air New Zealand’s Economy Skycouch (that arrived April 2011), offers a trio of seats designed for snuggling couples or restless families in need of some extra stretch space. Press a button and watch the armrests disappear and the footrests flip up to create a flat, flexible space for snoozing, reading or playing. The Skycouch always includes a window seat so that passengers have the option of leaning against the wall and fully extending their legs over the three-wide seat. The Skycouch is available on B777-300s flying on selected services to and from London (via LA). A full rollout before end 2012.
While airlines allow passengers in Premium Economy to swing their hips, you can expect sore knees down in the cheap seats. In regular economy Qantas, for example, calls a spade a spade with just 31 inches of legroom. Brace those knees for a bumpy ride, and woe betide anyone who tries to recline. JAL, British Airways, Air France (www.airfrance.com), and ANA (www.ana.co.jp) have a more than comfortable 38 inches in their Premium Economy sections, but again tend to get a bit miserly right down the back.
On the British Airways B747-400 the World Traveller Plus offers an extra inch of seat width (18.5 inches) and a 38-inch pitch (compared with 31 inches on regular World Traveller economy. On United’s B747-400 aircraft the Economy Plus class offers a 36-inch seat pitch (compared with 31 inches for economy, while the seat width is the same. The seats recline five inches.
United Airlines (www.united.com) Economy Plus is not a separate class but an area of the cabin featuring five extra inches of legroom, more than enough to swing a bison by the tail. Economy Plus is available to travellers possessing Premier or higher status on United’s Mileage Plus frequent flier programme. It is also available to those purchasing full-fare, unrestricted economy tickets. So while pitch is 31 inches in the rest of the aircraft, on Economy Plus seats it is actually 36 inches. Seat width, however, doesn’t change from the regular, and rather meagre, 17-18 inches on its B747-400 and B777-200 respectively.
Continental has merged with United Airlines and now flies under United flight codes. The livery transition to United continued to late 2013 and early 2014. United Economy Plus is available on all United flights and is being phased into the old Continental aircraft.
Scandinavian Airlines (www.flysas.com) outdoes UA with an inch extra in its Economy Extra. Expect a 37-inch pitch with another inch round the middle.
SilkAir (www.silkair.net) is blowing hot and cold with the refitting of all its Airbus 320-200s. Old-style cabins with a “cool” blue design were revamped during 2011 and given a new “warm" brown colour scheme. But the changes don’t end there. The new cabins lose an inch from the seat width going from 19 down to 18 inches and the pitch drops from 31-32 inches to 30-31 inches. Choose your colours carefully. Both configurations have a four-way adjustable headrest. Dropdown video screens of 10.4 inches are now in vogue for SilkAir.
Premium Economy for Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) occupies a separate cabin, with a 2-4-2 seat configuration; its “Sky Shell Seat” design emulates the award winning Executive Class “Shell Flat Seat”. Don’t expect a business class bed, but do revel in the clever design that reclines within its own space – no hustling for knee space on a JAL flight. Premium Economy has 20 percent more legroom than regular economy, with a seat pitch of almost 39 inches. Every seat comes with its own power outlet, a 9-inch personal TV, footrest and leg support. Ask for Premium Economy on Tokyo to London, Frankfurt, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Moscow, Chicago, Los Angeles, Sydney, Bangkok, Jakarta and Delhi routes.
Let’s cut to the chase. Bum room, or “cushion area”, as airlines like to call seat width, is what it’s all about. This makes all the difference between high life and high dudgeon. Flying TWA seats (domestic USA) before the 2001 merger with American Airlines (www.aa.com) there was enough space to set up an Everest base camp. Temptation to do so may be thwarted by pesky restrictions on oxygen canisters, sharp implements and nail clippers inflight. But this is Asia – bigger butts are harder to find, and not catered for by the expansive American Dream.
That is unless you are flying Cebu Pacific Air (www.cebupacificair.com) or Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com). Think 20 to 20.7 inches – that’s right, over 20 inches of sumptuous, roomy, economy space. The closest contenders for regular economy seat width are Gulf Air (www.gulfair.com) with 19.8 inches on the A319 and A330, Bangkok Airways with 19.37 inches on the A319-132 and A320-232, and Singapore Airlines with 18.6 inches on the Airbus 330-300, A380-800 and Boeing 777-300ER. A touch-screen entertainment system on Singapore Airways offers a large screen with clear images.
There was a time when several aircraft flying a two-class Asian route (but equipped with a full three classes – first, business and economy) offered a few lucky or knowledgeable passengers the widest ever economy seats. All you had to do was check-in early and ask for a forward row seat. These rows, invariably, overlapped the business cabin. There was a time as well when on some Japan Airlines flights transpacific, the economy cabin was just 20 or so “privileged” seats. Why? Because the entire aircraft was configured for executive class. You could sit back in economy and get pampered silly, while in business, weary salarymen fought for the attentions of a few overworked and distraught stewardesses.
We’ll let you in on a little secret. If you’re flying Vietnam Airlines (www.vietnamairlines.com) ask for the middle seat. That’s right. The middle seat. On several aircraft, for some reason, this is the roomiest. The middle seats are actually a couple of inches wider than the aisle and window seats. Incredible. Drukair (www.drukair.com.bt), the minnow from Bhutan, is a perky contender and serves economy class seats with a 20.66-inch width and a seat pitch of 32 inches on its small fleet of Airbus A319s.
Finnair (www.finnair.com) has added Airbus aircraft to its fleet, with an average 17 inches of “cushion space”, having phased out the old, skinny seat MD-11 (just 16.2 inches) in 2010. Working its way towards reasonable cushioning is Philippine Airlines. A few squeezers still remain at 16 inches, while others are doing a sterling job at 18.9 inches. The only trouble here is that both sizes are on the same B747-400 aircraft...
Every decimal point counts. V Australia, Air Canada and Cathay Pacific are battling it out in cattle class with 18.3 to 19.3 inches of decimal point variation, narrowly beating Qatar’s 18.17 inches. Airlines counting width in decimals points before they hit 18 inches need to beef up their behinds to be counted as anything other than also-rans.
Two’s company and three’s a crowd, which is why seat configuration is worth some careful consideration. Mile-high canoodling is much more fun in a pair of cosy window seats. If you’re travelling alone, just the one neighbour means less fragrant feet or pneumatic snoring. The 2-4-2 layout is most common on Airbus 330s and can be found on Dragonair (www.dragonair.com) A330s (types 1-4), Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) and Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) A330-200s and Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) A330s. On Cathay Pacific you can clamber over two legs rather than four by flying on its A330-300 and A340-300. The 2-4-2 configuration can also be found on Korean Air’s (www.koreanair.com) A300-600, A330-200 and A330-300. Boeing gets in on the action courtesy of ANA, which provides a 2-3-2 seating plan on its B767-300ER and 2-4-2 on the new B787 Dreamliner. While you may be lucky enough to bag a seat with a view on American Airlines’s B777-200, spare a thought for those squashed into the middle section of this 2-5-2 configured aircraft.
China Southern Airlines (www.csair.com) operates new A380s, with the 76 seats on the upper deck arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration and the 352 seats on the main deck set up in a 3-4-3 configuration. China Southern goes all out with the entertainment options including lots of music, movies, TV shows and even e-books. If you’re picky, a USB port allows you to upload whatever music or pictures you’ve brought along with you.
Economy class seat recline figures are not easy to sort out, ranging from inches to centimetres to degrees. One thousand degrees recline thundered one airline, later recanting and correcting this to 110 degrees or so. Rule of thumb, about six inches of recline is the equivalent of about 25 degrees or 15cm. Recline figures in degrees can add to the confusion. Some airlines count it off from zero, others from the 90-degree perpendicular, so 15 degrees would be, in fact, 105 degrees and so on. We have attempted to standardise the list by taking all reclines from a 90-degree starting point.
The most laid back when it comes to economy seat recline are Air France Premium Voyager (123 degrees), and Thai Airways and Jet Airways, both of which offer a restful 122-degrees of cradling. Pulling up the rear is Korean Air with 121 degrees.
Of the airlines favouring tape measures over protractors when calculating seat recline, the most impressive is Philippines Airlines (www.philippineairlines.com) with a satisfying seven-inches of slant, while Sri Lankan Airlines (www.srilankan.aero) and MAS offer a range of between five and seven all-important inches.
BA's World Traveller Plus clocks in at a 7.9-inch recline, trailing a little behind Air New Zealand Premium Economy’s nine inches (fifty percent more than its standard economy six-inch recline). The Spaceseat, as the airline likes to call it, introduced in Spring of 2011, offers a wider economy seat with about three inches more cushion-area width (also see the airline's Skycouch seat configuration mentioned earlier). Meanwhile Air France offers a 123-degree recline in its Premium Voyageur while both ANA and JAL offer 120 degrees in Premium Economy seats. Most other airlines offer around five to six inches or 108 to 115 degrees.
While British Airways only offers a rather standard 5.1-inch recline, it aims to please stiff necks and creaking backs with lumbar support and adjustable headrests – the free bar service also helps. We’ll take an extra whiskey over an extra pillow any day. Motherly Etihad (www.etihadairways.com) offers “cradle recline” seats, which supposedly allow your spine to rest in a more natural position. Combined with a 115-degree backward tilt – Etihad might be onto a winner with this.
Complicating things further are forward thinkers Cathay Pacific. The hard-shell seat design, much like JAL’s Premium Economy, slides down within a self-contained cocoon as the bottom of the seat shunts forward. Although seats actually move forward, the result is that you recline about four inches without knee capping the person behind you. The works for some, less so for others. The economy shell seat also offers a widescreen nine-inch TV that plugs into a library of over 100 movies and 888 music tracks in StudioCX.
It’s the technology and connectivity that is really getting the thumbs up from passengers and the investment from airlines. In the connectivity stakes, once reserved only for business and first class, power for your laptop and gadgets is fast becoming available down the back. In 2011, Singapore Airlines, in collaboration with inflight connectivity alchemist OnAir, started streaming in WiFi Internet with e-mail and texting facilities for smartphones and the BlackBerry (but not voice telephony initially). The service will phase in on 43 aircraft – the A380s, A340-500s and the B777-300ERs.
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) offers Flynet Broadband on its entire long-haul fleet while Malaysia Airlines allows you to text and e-mail via its inflight entertainment system on B747s and B777s. You can also plug in your laptop and text mid-air from your in-seat phone when flying with Finnair – or you could just order a large Bloody Mary.
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) Coral Economy Class seats have PC power outlets, USB ports and RJ 45 sockets that allow you to connect your laptop as you fly. V Australia (www.vaustralia.com.au) is launching full mobile phone and e-mail Internet connectivity during flights. Good-sized six-inch personal TVs are touch-screen and passengers can “chat” with each other in a web chat room. Premium Economy also has an in-seat USB port to which compatible devices can be connected for PDF file and photo viewing or listening to MP3 music files.
Choose your ride wisely when flying with Qatar – both the B777 and the A330 offer entertainment on demand and in-seat telephones but only the B777s have in-seat power supply and USB ports. Some A320s have Wi-Fi in all cabins. SWISS (www.swiss.com) has USB ports and lumbar supports in A300-300 economy cabins.
American Airlines (www.aa.com) B767-300 economy class features 191 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. If away on business but not in Business, just plug in to the latest economic analysis from Forbes.
Air New Zealand’s (www.airnewzealand.com) Pacific Premium Economy seats provide access to power for your laptop or iPod, as well as noise-cancelling headphones. There is also a smartly designed self-service bar, keeping passengers away from the metal-toothed galley space, and creating an attractive space where you can pour yourself a drink or help yourself to snacks.
Singapore Airlines pretty much leads the way for inflight entertainment with its extensive Krisworld offering. Pick from 80 on-demand movies, games, and endless music tracks. Use the in-seat phone to call anywhere using a satellite hook-up or make seat-to-seat calls (though you could simply walk over of course). On an SIA A380-800, B777-300ER or A330-300 you’ll have a USB port so just plug in your iPhone or iPod and enjoy your very own carry-aboard entertainment. Then of course there’s the new in-flight WiFi, which is being gradually introduced enabling passengers to text and email at 35,000ft. Don’t tell your boss or you can kiss goodbye to those afternoon power naps. Expect in-seat power (110V AC) for your laptop on Airbus A380-800, A330-300 and Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. SIA’s in-flight entertainment goes head to head with Cathay’s StudioCX. Both are a cut above the normal fare.
British Airways World Traveller seats set the focus on personal entertainment with over 100 movies and TV programmes and more than 70 CDs and audio books available on demand. Watch what you want, when you want. A new partnership with BBC Worldwide means that since December 2010, 100 aircraft have been fitted with a special entertainment system with themed channels such as BBC Entertainment, Knowledge, Lifestyle and CBeebies for pre-schoolers. You can also fast forward, rewind, pause or stop the action at any time and return to it later. Perfect for when the kids, or dad, need a nap. Music lovers can flick through 400 music CDs when using British Airways’ new Thales inflight entertainment system. Introduced in August 2010 on new B777-300ERs, it has plug-and-play facilities, 230 TV programmes and 70 films, which can be watched on 6.9-inch high resolution screens.
Thai Airways is finally bucking up its ideas with the introduction of a new interactive in-flight entertainment system in all classes on B777-300s and B777-200ERs. Movies, music, cartoons and games can be accessed via personal nine to 10.6-inch screens – you can even learn the basics of a new language or practice meditation. And bored passengers flying on Gulf Air’s A320 enjoy on-demand movies and music.
Budget airline Jetstar may not offer in-flight entertainment but on selected routes passengers can hire a portable media player or iPad to watch movies, TV programmes and music channels. Drown out screaming toddlers for about US$10 for the entire flight.
With many airlines looking to future technology to put them ahead in the best economy seat race, those large drop-down screens, which an over-exuberant hairstyle can frustrate for an entire flight-time of entertainment, are hitting the waste pile. Watch this space for Star Trek-style video visors and a new era of self-service bars. Business class amenities are edging towards the back of the cabin – who are we to complain?
Now if you want to swing a cat by its tail in economy, you’ll know where to begin. And for those who have thus far escaped the maws of DVT, that’s the A to Z of our economy class seats review.
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