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Routehappy Report: The Best Seats in the Sky

About 13 percent of U.S. domestic flights have coach/economy seats with at least one inch of extra legroom than the industry standard. That’s the overall conclusion from a new study by Routehappy, the innovative flight-search website that calculates a “happiness” factor for each flight. Although I quibble with a few of the details, the full report has lots of information for anyone trying to escape the worst of the punishingly tiny seats in the back of the plane these days. And the same information also goes into the “happiness” factor scores that Routehappy displays for every flight.

If you’ve flown anywhere in the last few years, you know that the industry-standard economy legroom is really bad. Airlines measure legroom by “pitch,” which is the front-to-rear spacing between seat rows. You measure it from any given point on a seat to the same point on the seat in the next row. And the current standard is 31 inches, which gives you almost no legroom and not enough room at shoulder level to open and use a computer.

The report’s main focus is on the seven big U.S. airlines and, in particular, how many of each line’s daily domestic flights operate with better-than-standard 31-inch seat pitch compared with that line’s total number of flights. It also shows which lines have seats that are up to an inch wider than the very tight standard width that was originally established by the 707s, 737s, 747s, 757s, and DC8s and has remained virtually unchanged since then.

  • Southwest flies the greatest number of extra-legroom flights, with 996 flights at 32-inch pitch, but narrow; these flights represent only 31 percent of Southwest’s total.
  • Alaska flies 752 flights at 32-inch pitch, but narrow, amounting to 96 percent of its flights.
  • JetBlue is among the best (I call it the best, period). All 329 daily flights in A320/319s have 34-inch pitch; although JetBlue will be moving to 33-inch pitch with its new planes, 33 inches will still be better than anyone else. Also, seats are an inch wider than standard. And all 252 flights in its E175s are at 32-inch pitch, wider than standard, and in a 2-2 configuration with no middle seats.
  • US Airways operates 278 flights a day in A321s with 32-inch pitch, wider, and also 27 flights in 757s at 32-inch pitch, but narrow. Combined, however, these represent only 11 percent of the line’s total flights.
  • All 179 daily Virgin America flights are at 32-inch pitch and wider.
  • United operates a few 757-300s and 47 flights in its new 787s at 32-inch pitch, both narrow. But this is only 2 percent of United’s total flights, and I can’t find any 757-300s with 32-inch pitch on United’s website or our sister site SeatGuru.
  • Hawaiian operates 17 flights at 32-inch pitch, wider, but that’s only 9 percent of total flights. The report doesn’t say, but these are apparently on the 767s, which the line is retiring in favor of A330s.

If you slice and dice the data in a different way, you figure that JetBlue, Virgin America, and Alaska give you a 100 percent or near-100 percent chance of getting at least one extra inch of legroom on all flights—two to three extra on JetBlue. But your chances drop rapidly to just 31 percent on Southwest, and to only a very few flights on other lines.

The report also notes that all or most flights on American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, and United offer cabin sections with several rows of seats that are as narrow as regular seats, but provide up to 4 or 5 extra inches of legroom. JetBlue’s “even more room” option gets you a roomy 38-inch pitch on its 320/319s. On most lines, these extra roomy seats go as freebies to travelers on full-fare economy or exalted frequent flyers; others pay. Most other lines offer exit- and bulkhead-row seats as extra cost options—a lot extra on Virgin America.

The report also includes some interesting data on premium economy, business-class, and first-class seating, which I’ll cover later. Meanwhile, you can download the report free from Routehappy‘s home page.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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