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Legroom

Airlines are often compared in terms of the amount of "legroom" they provide in each class of service. Especially in coach/economy class, seat space is often the most critical difference among various airlines. (In the U.S., most airlines call their lowest-level cabin "coach," while airlines elsewhere generally use "economy.")

Legroom and Pitch

The perceived amount of legroom any passenger experiences depends on four factors:

Because seat geometry, thickness, and recline are so variable and difficult to measure, the industry uses "pitch" as a surrogate for a more precise measure. Pitch is defined as the front-to-rear spacing of seat rows, measured from any point on a seat to the corresponding point on the seat to the front or the rear.

Typical Pitch Ranges

Air travelers experience a variety of seat pitches, depending on the airline, airplane, class of service, and route. Typical pitch ranges:

Sub-Economy

28 to 29 inches (71 to 74 cm). Seating this tight is generally limited to some charter and low-fare airlines in Europe and Asia, but a few others have a few seats at these pitch figures. Sub-economy seats are extremely tight and uncomfortable.

Normal Economy

30 to 32 inches (76 to 81 cm), with a few lines going to 33 to 34 inches (84 to 86 cm). At 30 to 32 inches, these seats are tight and uncomfortable--the ubiquitous "cattle car" so many travelers hate--but those at 33 to 34 avoid the worst overcrowding.

Premium Economy

37 to 40 inches (94 to 102 cm), with one (Open Skies) as high as 52 inches (132 cm) and a few not-quite-premium cabins at 35 or 36 inches (89 to 91 cm). Only a few airlines offer premium economy--mostly on long-haul international routes--but adoption is increasing.

First Class/Business Class Short Haul

34 to 40 inches (86 to 102 cm). This is the general norm for the front cabin on most domestic U.S. flights and many short-haul flights elsewhere, especially with two-class narrow-body jets. Some lines call their front cabin first class, others call it "business class," but differences, if any, are in cabin service rather than seating.

Business-Class Long Haul

47 to 78 inches (119 to 198 cm). This version of business class is used mainly on long-haul international routes, but airlines occasionally use these long-haul planes for domestic or regional flights. The wide range of difference reflects the rapid changes in the market. On highly competitive routes, airlines are moving to "lie flat" seats in business class, with pitch of at least 55 inches (140 cm), while less competitive routes still see seating more typical of the 1980s and 1990s.

First Class Long-Haul

50 to 80 inches (127 to 203 cm). Long-haul business class on the giant airlines has become so opulent that many of them have eliminated first class entirely. Those that retain it provide lavish seating, these days typically lie-flat and increasingly in private "suites."

Finding the Pitch

Many airlines post seat pitch (and width) on their websites, usually in association with the seat maps they show for each type of airplane in their fleet. In addition, several websites post seat pitch data for many airlines.

The two best show seat pitch, along with interactive seat maps and other comfort information, for each individual airplane model:

Executive Travel Sky Guide tabulates pitch for each airplane, but for only 11 airlines in the U.S. and Canada. SkyTrax tabulates seat pitch for almost 200 airlines, worldwide, but it shows only the fleet averages for each line and not information for each airplane model.

For the Future

In 2001, a study conducted through the European Joint Aviation Authorities ("Anthropometric Study to Update Minimum Aircraft Seating Standards," no longer available online) concluded that current seating standards were inadequate to meet safety requirements, and that minimum pitch should increase to at least 31 inches (79 cm). Ideally, the study concluded, the minimum pitch should increase by as much as 10 inches. Obviously, that conclusion has had no discernible effect on anybody.

Given cost pressures, airlines are trying to stuff more seats into each airplane, not provide more comfortable seats, at least in economy class. One seat supplier, Thompson Solutions, is promoting a system of staggered seating that would allow airlines to cram an extra seat into each row in a wide-body plane, while keeping the same nominal seat width. This would allow airlines to keep total capacity the same and expand pitch, or (more likely), to add still more seats at the same pitch. So far, no airline has installed these seats. And the jury is very much still out on whether the staggered arrangement would be acceptable for other reasons.

Legroom on Trains and Buses

Given the wealth of online information about airlines, there is very little about seating on trains or buses:

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