By Independent Traveler
updated 6/29/2006 3:13:00 PM ET 2006-06-29T19:13:00

For your information, we found a few: Cathay Pacific's Boeing 747 seats 66 A and K and Singapore Airlines' Boeing 747 seats 61 A and K.

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When Janice Wald Henderson had to take a trans-continental flight from New York to Los Angeles just hours after having eye surgery, she saw clearly, even with her limited vision, the vast difference between economy- and business-class travel.

"I was seated in one of the first rows in economy, just behind the business-class seats," she said. The business-class bathroom was just a few feet away, while the nearest economy-class bathroom was much further. "I got up to use the business-class bathroom and was quickly stopped." She explained to the flight attendant she had just had eye surgery, had limited vision and was off-balance. Henderson said the response was "I don't care what you've had -- you're not using that bathroom."

Now Henderson, a food and travel writer and frequent flier, chooses her seat online when she buys her ticket, and then goes back "every two or three days to see if anything better has opened up." She's not the only person fixated on getting a good seat -- frequent economy-class fliers know that all seats are not created equal, and doing a little research may mean the difference between an (almost) pleasant experience and an unbearable one.

Kate Bell makes a living from people's obsession with getting a good seat. For $5, her company, Boardfirst.com, will get you an "A" boarding pass on Southwest Airlines. Travelers in the "A" group board the plane first, which gives them their selection of seats and all but guarantees overhead storage space. Southwest Airlines has no assigned seats but allows customers to check in 24 hours before their flight; the first 45 people get the coveted "A" boarding pass.

Bell's frequent customers are businesspeople who must store their belongings in the overhead compartments in order to avoid delays at baggage claim, and families or groups who want to ensure they will be able to sit together during the flight. Many of her customers, Bell said, are over 6'2" and require an exit row or aisle seat for the extra legroom.

Matthew Daimler, founder and CEO of SeatGuru.com, said he is "aware of what one to two inches of leg room can do -- it makes the difference between being able to open my laptop all the way or being able to cross my legs comfortably."

'Singapore Airlines had the best service'
For some though, price still trumps all. Christina Valhouli, editor of iTraveliShop.com, recently completed an around-the-world trip, all in economy class. "I look to price first," she said. "Then based on what airline has the best price, I'll go to their Web site and pick a seat." For Valhouli, the "best seat" means an aisle seat away from the bathroom. "Everyone has their own little thing that makes the flight bearable," Daimler said. For him, it's the in-flight entertainment. "It just makes the flight go by so much faster."

Valhouli's around-the-world trip typically found her on Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines or Air New Zealand. "Far and away Singapore Airlines had the best service," she said. "The staff was always smiling, impeccably dressed and you actually felt they enjoyed serving the passengers, while a lot of [flight attendants] on other airlines can be quite surly."

Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific are two standouts, consistently ranked in various third-party surveys as among the best for economy class service. Their 747s feature personal in-flight entertainment and identical seat pitch (32 inches) as well as seat width (17.5 inches). Singapore Airlines offers a foot rest, while Cathay Pacific doesn't.

Seats 66 A and K on Cathay and seats 61 A and K on Singapore are far enough from the lavatories to avoid any unpleasant odors, but close enough to keep an eye on the line for those lavatories. The seats are also part of a pair and among the only twosomes on a 3-4-3 configuration. Because there is no seat directly next to the window, the seat feels roomier and perhaps offers the best of both worlds for the traveler who prefers an aisle seat but enjoys looking out the window.

"There are significant differences when flying Pacific-based airlines and Atlantic-based ones," Daimler said. Seatguru.com has comparison charts that make it possible to compare not only seat pitch, but amenities on various carriers. Typically, Pacific-based carriers are superior in these categories.

But Henderson said, ultimately, the people working on your flight are often more important than your seat. Pleasant people, she said, "make all the difference in the world. I've had terrible experiences in first class and wonderful experiences in coach."

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