Finding legroom in economy class

Canadian airline WestJet's Boeing 737-800s are among North America's best commercial jets to fly in terms of economy-class legroom. They offer a comfortable 34-inch seat pitch.
Canadian airline WestJet's Boeing 737-800s are among North America's best commercial jets to fly in terms of economy-class legroom. They offer a comfortable 34-inch seat pitch.
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So you're in New York, and you need to get to Milwaukee. Your search reveals there are two nonstop services for about the same price. Both of them are out of LaGuardia. AirTran can do it for $202; Midwest Airlines can do it for $214.

You might never have flown on either airline, so you do what most people would do. You go for the cheapest seat. But should you? Maybe you should find out the two airlines’ respective seating arrangements first.

Airlines will tell you that you should never count on a specific plane before actually seeing it at your gate. This can be true. I still remember a particularly grim flight on a circa-1980s Delta 757, after having booked a ticket on the short-lived and superb Song (Delta’s brand within a brand, offering seat-back entertainment screens and leather seats). Instead, the airline substituted a non-Song mainline Delta 757, which had none of those amenities.

Caveats aside, you can generally expect to fly on the plane you were told you'd be flying on at time of booking. A quick search via would inform you that AirTran flies Boeing 737s both ways from New York to Milwaukee. Midwest flies Boeing 717s both ways.

Starting at, I try to learn a little more about the interior of the 737. While I learn that there's free XM Satellite Radio and "ergonomically correct RECARO brand" seating," I know nothing about the kind of space I'm going to have.

Seat pitches and widths differ
This calls for a visit to Here, I learn the shocking truth: AirTran’s seats have a scant 31-inch seat pitch — one of the worst among U.S. domestic airlines.

A quick explanation of seat pitch: It's defined as the distance between a specific point on one seat (say, yours) and the seat in front of you (say, that guy whose bald spot is practically in your face) or the seat behind you (the one belonging to that guy tapping on his laptop so hard that the movement of his seat tray is making you feel like you're in the middle of a small earthquake.)

So, AirTran coach seats are rather cramped. What about Midwest? On, I discover that Midwest’s 717s offer 2-2 seating, as opposed to the usual 2-3 or 3-3 you generally find in domestic economy cabins.

SeatGuru's information page on the airline's 717s reveals that while there is just a 32-inch seat pitch, seat width — a dimension people tend to talk less about, but one that is important when considering breathing room on a plane — is a generous 21 inches.

Compare that to AirTran's fairly standard 18 inches. For virtually no price difference at all, you get more space on Midwest.

For now, anyway. Midwest spokesman Michael Brophy said the airline will be converting its 717s to offer two styles of seating. Forty "Signature" seats (at extra cost) will remain 2-2 and offer better seat pitch (36 inches), while 59 "Saver" seats will go 3-2, retaining the 32-inch pitch.

This brings the 717s in line with the company's MD-80s, which already have a similar layout (with less Signature seating.) Signature seating will cost $65 more than Saver seating, per segment. Some things won't change, however: Nice leather seating, proper in-flight meals for purchase, and, best of all, free, warm chocolate-chip cookies.

JetBlue best among U.S. airlines
Midwest was always a special airline — but it has had to finally learn the hard truth that other airlines finally faced: More room is appreciated, but customer appreciation doesn't always pay the bills. Just ask TWA — if it was still around to ask. Converting coach to the more roomy Comfort Class made waves and won awards in the early 1990s. By 1994, TWA had canned it.

TWA was acquired by American in 2001. At the time, American was offering a similar service, called "More Room in Coach," which offered seat pitch of 33 inches or 34 inches throughout most of its economy cabins. That scheme went the way of TWA by 2004.

United never depended on anyone's goodwill in launching its Economy Plus (EP) scheme, which features a few rows of more spacious seating. On an Airbus 320, for instance, you get a nice 36-inch seat pitch — even if the seat is no wider than those in the rest of the cabin at 18 inches, which, again, is fairly normal. You pay more for the better seat pitch.

Prices depend on length of flight, according to the airline. A short hop from United’s Denver hub would run you $14, while a Denver-Honolulu flight would cost $61 each way. United formerly offered the seats with better leg room as a complimentary service for its most elite frequent fliers, but has loosened the rules over time. Spokesperson Jeff Kovick said all customers may purchase EP seats "at the time of booking or on the day of check-in, pending availability."

JetBlue appears to have taken a page from United's playbook. When it removed seats in the front of the cabin to give rows 2 to 5 on its Airbus A320s a whopping 38 inches of seat pitch, it began charging $10 for short flights, and $20 for transcontinental and other long flights. But you don't have to upgrade to get ahead — even the regular seats on JetBlue offer an industry-leading 34-inch seat pitch. That is even better than Frontier, known for its fairly friendly 33-inch pitch on its A319s.

Best planes for legroom

So which airlines and specific aircraft within those airlines have the most and least seat pitch?

We consulted SeatGuru’s handy comparison charts for some answers. Excluding United’s Economy Plus seating, here are the top choices:

  • WestJet Boeing 737-800s: 34 inches
  • Air Canada Embraer ERJ-190s: 34 inches
  • Air Canada Bombardier CRJ705s: 34 inches
  • JetBlue Airbus A320s: 34 inches (38 inches if you pay extra)
  • Frontier Airlines Airbus A318s and A319s: 33 inches
  • American Airlines Boeing 767s: 33 to 34 inches
  • Southwest Airlines Boeing 737s: 32 to 33 inches

Worst planes for legroom

Which aircraft have the most cramped seating? Some of the worst are:

  • Northwest Airlines DC9-30: 30 inches
  • US Airways Boeing 737-400s and Airbus A319s and A320s: 30 inches
  • AirTran Boeing 717s: 30 inches
  • USA3000 Airbus A320s: 30 inches

In fact, the vast majority of commercial jetliners have 31 inches of pitch, with an additional handful offering 32 inches.

If it’s seat width you’re looking for, stick with the aforementioned Midwest Airlines 717s, and Virgin America’s A320s (19.7 inches). Most other U.S. airlines’ planes have 17 inches to 18 inches, according to SeatGuru.

On planes flying international routes, you’ll find similar disparities between airlines. Most carriers will only give you between 30 inches and 31 inches of seat pitch, even on long-haul flights. No wonder we all arrive in such bad shape.

Among the airlines affording those all-important extra inches are Air Canada, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways, and Virgin Atlantic, all offering 32 inches. But if you really want to sit comfortably, Air New Zealand’s 747-400s, Asiana’s 747-400s and Emirates’ 777s offer a relaxing 34 inches.