If you’re feeling more cramped than ever on airplanes, you’re not imagining this discomfort. As recently as 15 years ago, most airlines gave coach passengers nearly 34 inches of seat pitch, the industry term for legroom that measures the distance from the back of a seat to the seat back directly in front of it. With companies trying to maximize revenue by cramming more seats into the same planes, that number has dwindled — literally inch by inch — in recent years, with some budget airlines now offering as little as 28 inches of seat pitch between coach-class rows.
Last week, after strong criticism, American Airlines reversed its plan to reduce coach-class legroom on its newest planes to just 29 inches. But if you’re planning to fly American, don’t stretch your legs just yet — the airline still plans to trim legroom by an inch, decreasing space to 30 inches, on its new fleet of Boeing 737 Max jets. If you’ve flown coach recently, your knees can tell you that you feel the squeeze from every inch lost.
“We’ve reassessed what’s appropriate” is how American Airlines President Robert Isom described the legroom reversal in a message to employees last week. “This is the right call for customers and the right call for our team members who take care of them.”
It’s not hard to understand the motivation behind the decrease in seat pitch: Just follow the money. When the new American 737s roll down the runway, they’ll carry 172 seats — 22 more than the same-size plane had just a few years ago. Innovation in seat construction and material means that packing more rows into planes is safe and conceivable, if not exactly comfortable. For the airlines, it's more profitable.
Though most passengers are by now resigned to the new space-constricted reality of air travel, legroom is still important enough to dictate their flight choice. “Seat pitch is definitely one of the most important amenities, based on the data points we collect,” Jason Rabinowitz, airline research director at travel website Routehappy, told the Wall Street Journal last week.
So which airlines are your best choice if you're not into traveling like a sardine? Well, the days of 34-inch coach-class-legroom "luxury" are long gone, but JetBlue, Virgin Atlantic and Southwest Airlines still offer 32 inches of seat pitch (for Southwest, ask before you book, as some planes dip down to 31 inches). The biggest U.S. airlines — United, Delta and American —uniformly offer seat pitch of between 30 and 31 inches. Budget airlines Spirit and Frontier will cramp your style the most, providing only 28 inches of seat pitch. Not coincidentally, reports the Wall Street Journal, Spirit receives some of the the worst ratings among air travelers at the website seatguru.com.
One additional note: If you're concerned about the width of your seat as well as about seat pitch, check the manufacturer before you book. On smaller, single-aisle planes, Boeing includes seats that are 17.2 inches wide, which Airbus planes give 18.3 inches of width. On wide-body planes designed for longer flights, the difference is negligible; both Boeing and Airbus seats are 17 inches wide.