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Is There Any Way to Really Get Comfortable When Flying Economy?

How to stretch out in a tiny airplane seat without annoying everyone around you

You’ve bought the ticket and are taking the ride — but it’s the cheapest ticket the airline offers, and for that, they’re not going to give you much in return. In fact, they’re giving you progressively less, as seat size and leg room has been shrinking for some time.   

Seats are measured in the industry with a metric called “seat pitch”: It’s technically the distance from a point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front of it. In a practical sense, it’s the question of, how hard are your fucking knees digging into the pleather/plastic/elastic woven seatback pocket in front of you? “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight,” the pilot inevitably says. What a sick sense of humor they have in the cockpit! 

In order to fight these ever-shrinking proportions inside an aircraft, what’s a guy in economy-class to do? How can you get comfortable on a plane, really? Alongside airline industry expert Seth Kaplan — transportation analyst for NPR’s Here and Now, co-host of the Airlines Confidential podcast and Harrisburg, Pa., based reporter for Nexstar Media Group — we’re reclining on some answers.

I don’t remember the last time I was able to get comfortable on a plane. How tight are seats getting, really? Is it as bad as it seems?

It’s slow and gradual, but economy class room is getting inevitably smaller, like a garbage dump inside the Death Star. Back in 1985, Southwest offered 35 inches of seat pitch between every row. Nowadays, the standard is 31 inches. Here’s a comparison of seat pitches between 29 and 34 inches: A small amount makes a big difference!

Seat pitch doesn’t translate exactly to legroom (more on that in a bit). But it’s a good indicator of how close the seats are, and there is a range. “Generally the ultra-low-cost carriers — Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant — have the least legroom,” Kaplan says. “JetBlue provides generally the most; Southwest is another that provides above-average legroom. And most others (American, Delta, Alaska, etc.) are somewhere in the middle.”

The reason seat pitch doesn’t quite equate to legroom is because, as planes have added more seats, most seats have also gotten thinner and lighter in order to save fuel. So for example, if seat pitch has decreased 2 inches over the years, but the seat is an inch thinner, passengers have only lost an inch of legroom, Kaplan points out.

Oh, and you might have noticed that the low-cost airlines now tend to have what are euphemistically called pre-reclined seats that don’t actually move at all. (They require less maintenance, and thus, less cost and less hassle all around.)

So what’s a guy in economy to do?

“Very clearly we’ve gotten to where the cheapest airline ticket includes safe travel, and not a lot else!” Kaplan says. “Including not a lot of leg room or elbow room.” 

Let’s start off with the number one rule of flying etiquette (even a magazine called Gentleman’s Journal agrees): Stay in your own space. Don’t spill over into others’. Fair enough, right? Legroom and headroom are pretty crystal clear. But who governs those shared spaces? We’re talking, of course, about the middle armrests and the ability to recline, the arguments over which can literally start fights and ground flights.

“When you cram a whole lot of people into a small space, obviously there’s a premium on everything,” Kaplan explains. “That’s why it can sometimes bring out the worst in people.”

Okay, who gets the armrests?

Most everyone seems to agree that the middle armrests go to the middle passenger in a group of three. “If you’re stuck in the middle seat, you should get [both] the armrests,” Kaplan says. If you want to be really anal about your forearm real estate, you can always carry these things.

What about reclining?

Man… this one’s a minefield that makes American politics look civil. The reason is that, as airplane interior designer James Lee has remarked, recline is a zero-sum game: When you recline to claim more space for yourself, others get less.

You’ll find people who believe that if the seats functionally recline, it’s your right to recline: That since everyone in economy understands that you could have paid more for more space, that everyone’s entitled to maximize the space they paid for. You’ll also find people who believe in an intricate set of protocols: No reclining till after the beverage service/snack/meal, for example. 

You’ll also find people who say it’s completely unacceptable. This USA Today article last year made a widely cited case against reclining by quoting a man named Simon Sapper, a frequent traveler who comes off like a cartoonishly haughty Englishman. “Seat reclining is one of the most irritating, inconvenient, self-indulgent habits… Period,” he says. (Although, being British, maybe he’s just waiting for an invitation to recline from the passenger behind him.)

But other frequent fliers — Kaplan included — have come around on reclining, too. “I’ve evolved from someone who used to think, ‘Hey, the seat reclines for a reason,’” he says. “‘You can recline into me. I’m not a hypocrite. I will fully understand if a person wants to recline into me. The person behind me can recline too.’ But I don’t really do that anymore because there is so little space. And I think of the person’s laptop behind me.” 

Basically, we’re out of space nowadays.

Uh, cool, but I’m still gonna recline. What’s the right way to do it?

“The way to do it is, if you want to recline, look behind you — some people will ask,” says Kaplan. “Do it gently, and if you have an issue with someone reclining into you, don’t resolve in the way you see on cell phone videos. Just say, ‘Hey, I’ve got my laptop open, I’m eating something’ — whatever it is — ‘can I ask you to put your seat up a bit?’”

Also don’t use this Knee Defender item, which basically disables the person in front of you from reclining. It’s been responsible for at least one mid-flight fight, and in any case, Kaplan says the crew doesn’t allow them.

And what are the best seats?

No surprises here. For headroom, get a window seat. It’s got a whole wall you can lean against (for you window seat people, there’s this tray thing that hangs on the window, which helps you nest a bit. For legroom and a bit more manspreading, it’s the aisle seat. If you need to splay even more, did you know the aisle-seat armrest sometimes folds up? There’s a secret button to do it. 

No, I mean, are some seats better on a plane than others?

Sure, you can get a bit more room if you pay a bit more for roomier seats. Of course, there’s also the emergency exit rows and the seats next to the bulkhead (that often garishly-carpeted wall in front of the very first row). If you’re shopping between airlines, SeatGuru has charts that tell you about the size of each plane’s seats for comparison. 

Also, due to COVID, don’t forget that Delta is still keeping the middle seat empty through January 6th, according to Kaplan.

Finally, if you’re really flying budget, Kaplan says one of the better secrets is Spirit Airlines’ Big Front Seat, which is a real exception to Spirit’s stingy amount of legroom. “It is just a big front seat — you’re not going to get a free scotch with it, but these are basically first-class domestic seats, including width,” Kaplan says. “They’re two by two, not three by three. They’re really comfortable. And sometimes they’re $40 extra. So that can be a great deal if you don’t care about and don’t have money for other amenities, but you want to be comfortable with the seat itself. It’s better than a lot of what’s out there.”

Any tips to get more legroom?

If you bought an economy ticket and are asking for more legroom, honestly man, you’re sort of howling at the moon. But one thing you can do to maximize it is not bring so much shit with you — meaning, bring only one carry-on and put it in the overhead compartment so that you don’t have anything taking up the personal space where your feet are supposed to go.

Also, random stuff! Try to get the tension out — if you can’t relax your whole body, at least relax your jaw (according to a very tall guy I asked). Utilize those pillows/cushions/slings/slipper socks for sale at the airport kiosks if you’re the sort of person who enjoys these gadgets. See if there’s an empty row to jump into. Roll up a blanket or towel for lumbar support, says a USA Olympic-team chiropractor. And try to make the most of your time, whatever that may be — it’s easier and more fun than sitting there in misery. If you think a drink will help relax you, maybe enjoy an adult beverage or seven in the terminal before you board?

And, of course, there’s just the basic matter of diversion. “In some ways, [trying to get comfortable on a plane, especially in economy] involves letting technology take you out of where you are,” Kaplan says. “Bring a tablet, load it with all your favorite stuff and bring some comfortable headphones.”

It seems the real key to making the most of very little space, then, is pretty simple: Choose the right seat. Pack what you need, and hopefully not too much extra to maximize space. Be nice to your neighbors if you stretch out. After that, just try to make your flying time fly by.

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