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Routehappy Seat Report - Which Airlines Have The Biggest, Best Seats?

Sept. 04, 2013
10 min read
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Routehappy Seat Report - Which Airlines Have The Biggest, Best Seats?
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Routehappy is a cool travel website that rates airlines and specific flights based on a variety of metrics like seat size and type, aircraft type, entertainment options, WiFi availability, user-generated reviews and more.

Following up on its In-Flight WiFi Report from earlier this summer, Routehappy has released an updated report on seating options in both economy and premium cabins on domestic and international flights, and which airlines and routes you should choose if you want to fly the newest, roomiest products in the skies.

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After all, as my 9,000-mile, 21-hour trip to South Africa today proved once again to me, no matter how short or how tall you are, everyone wants to have as much space as possible on a plane, especially for a long flight.

This report focused mainly on seat size in economy as well as the type of seat (angled lie-flat, full lie-flat, pod, etc.) in the premium cabins rather than on other factors like price and entertainment options, but it’s an interesting snapshot of the airline industry at a time of transition where more and more airlines are updating both their domestic and international products hoping to entice higher-spending travelers.

My takeaways were:
-More airlines are offering economy seats with extra legroom for a price these days both on domestic and international routes - another revenue source for airlines
-Those airlines without these options tend to have more uniformly spacious standard economy seats with more pitch
-We're unlikely to see true Premium Economy seating on US airlines anytime soon since most seem to be opting for sections of economy with more legroom rather than a completely separate product and cabin
-US airlines are increasingly updating both their domestic and international premium cabin products and we'll start seeing more true lie-flat and pod seats in business class

Here are some of the findings that I found most interesting.

Economy Class: Domestic Flights

Legroom is probably the single most important factor when it comes to economy seating, so Routehappy has broken down its analysis of economy seating options into four categories: tight, standard, roomier and premium economy.

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-Tight, which are super packed in at 30" pitch or less.

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-Standard, which are usually okay at 31" pitch…until your front neighbor reclines into your knees.

One step up, there are two types of extra legroom seating, offering more leg space and some extra perks in the economy cabin. This seating is often sold or given away free to elite frequent flyers.

- Roomier seats with usually a 32—35" pitch, and sometimes offering an extra perk here and there, as with Virgin America’s Main Cabin Select, American’s Main Cabin Extra, United’s Economy Plus, Delta’s Economy Comfort and JetBlue’s Even More Space.

-Premium Economy, which is a separate cabin with larger recliner seats and an upgraded service – and here we’re pretty much just talking about international flights.

Which Flights Have the Roomiest Economy Seats?

Here's the mildly good news: 13% of all US domestic flights have what are considered to be "roomier" standard seats in their regular economy at a 32" pitch or more - and without forcing passengers to pay extra.

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Routehappy suggests looking at Southwest, the airline with the most domestic flights (996 daily) where you can get a roomier seat with 32 inches of pitch without paying extra. In terms of raw number of flights, Southwest is followed by Alaska (also at 32 inches), then JetBlue with 34 inches on its A320’s, US Airways with 32-inch seats on its A321’s, and Virgin America at 32 inches on all flights.

Just note that while JetBlue and Virgin have more room in all their economy seats and Alaska comes in close with 96% of their economy seats clocking in at the roomer 32 inches, only 31% of Southwest’s seats have 32 inches of pitch, and just 11% of US Airways’ economy seats do even though they operate more flights overall.

If you want the whole bag of goodies, what Routehappy considers to be the "Productivity Trifecta": Roomier seats, WiFi and in-seat power, then look no further than Virgin America in their regular economy section. Sometimes it is possible to find this combination on an American, Delta or United flight…but only if you are seated in the Extra Legroom economy section such as American’s Main Cabin Extra or Delta’s Economy Comfort.

Paying for More Room in Economy

If you want to shell out for extra room in economy, you are not alone. Though it will cost you, the good news is, it's becoming an affordable alternative to premium class seats, and 40% of US domestic flights now offer this option, with Delta having the most extra legroom seats, followed by United and then American. You'll also find these seats on JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit and Virgin America.

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You won't find them on Southwest, US Airways, Alaska, AirTrain or Hawaiian as they just aren't equipped with this product on their planes, though as I said, sometimes standard seats on these airlines are nearly as roomy as the extra legroom sections on airlines that have them.

Economy Class: International Flights

Providing a modicum of relief for long-haul international travelers, nearly half of all international flights from the US now offer either extra legroom economy or Premium Economy options. Just 9% of the 1,800 daily international flights from the US have Premium Economy, but 38% have extra legroom economy options.

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Twelve airlines have regular economy seats with extra legroom and operate nearly 700 daily international flights from the US. Among those with the highest percentage of flights with extra legroom economy seats are JetBlue (at 100%, though only 71 daily flights), Delta, United and American.

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Premium Economy is a separate cabin, and while 16 airlines offer it on some of their daily flights to/from the US, only seven airlines offer it on every international flight from the US: British Airways (not including its 2 daily all-business class flights from LCY), Virgin Atlantic, Cathay Pacific, Icelandair, SAS, Air New Zealand, Qantas, and Virgin Australia. British Airways offers 44 flights daily with this seating option - the most of any of the above airlines.

Business and First Class: Domestic Flights

When it comes to business and first class, seat type is the most important option and Routehappy has subdivided them into five different types.

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Recliner: domestic first class recliner seat, similar to an armchair

Cradle Sleeper: like a La-Z-Boy armchair that reclines further than the Recliner chair

Angle Flat: the seat can be put flat, but at a 10-20 degree angle to the floor

Full Flat: completely flat and parallel to the floor - like a real bed

Full Flat Pod: totally flat, no middle seat and direct aisle access

While there are nearly 10,500 daily domestic flights that offer business and/or first class, only 117 of them have international-style flat seating. Of the rest, an overwhelming majority (9,400) have old-school recliners, 240 have cradle sleepers and 520 have just standard economy seats in business/first.

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Of the airlines that currently true lie-flat seating in business/first, United has the most at 34, with another 28 being converted from cradle to lie-flat. American has 27 flights with angled lie-flats (before its new fleet comes online), and Delta has 24 flights with full-flat pods. US Airways has just 4 daily flights with angled lie-flat beds.

If you want the most updated business/first class cabins, they are mostly available on the airlines’ transcontinental routes, although there are some shorter flights and non-JFK transcons where you can find them such as MIA-LAX and even Newark EWR to Chicago ORD on United – usually for airplanes being repositioned for international segments.

Business and First Class: International Flights

What’s also interesting is that for the first time, more than half of international flights to/from the US now have lie-flat seats in business class, but before you get too excited, 46% of premium international products are still recliners, and when you only take full-flat and full-flat pods into consideration, they only make up 30% - though we should start seeing more and more of them over time.

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Delta has the most available full-flat pods on flights from the US to international destinations with 62 international flights a day with these seats.

Virgin Atlantic and US Airways follow with 16 flights a day with full-flat pods then Cathay Pacific with 10 – though this number will likely go up once its new HKG-EWR route comes into effect next spring. Among the other interesting numbers in this subset are that Alitalia has upped its number to 7 daily flights with the new Magnifica business class, beating out even Singapore, and that American has 6 of its 777-300ER’s with the new business class in service already.

However, in larger terms, United has the most full-flat seats (not pods) departing the US at over 105 per day – trailed behind significantly by British Airways with just 46, then LAN with 14. These aren’t private pods, but at least they are fully flat and are on a significant number of international flights.

An unsurprising tidbit is that the international route with the most lie-flat seats is New York JFK to London (and the report suggests you fly out of JFK instead of EWR for a pod) with American’s 777-300ER generating the most buzz thanks to the new Cathay-style business class pods on the aircraft. Of the 17 daily flights from JFK-LHR, 9 have full-flat pods and 8 are full-flat beds. Aside from London, other destinations with the best business class offerings include Tokyo Narita and Hong Kong.

Where Do We Go From Here?

All in all, I found the report to be a good overall industry snapshot at a pretty interesting time when airlines, both domestic and international, are revamping their seat products.

All the major airlines are all going to have to up their game in terms of premium products, especially on those lucrative transcontinental and international routes with the most competition as flyers come to expect a certain level of product that now means full lie-flat and pod seats. Airlines are especially eager to woo and maintain their premium passengers since this is where the lion's share of their profit is generated (and much more per passenger than in economy).

On the other hand, I think we'll also start seeing less and less room in regular economy seats both domestically and internationally as airlines look to pack in more seats and grasp for new revenue streams that include charging extra for what we would now consider a decent amount of room in economy (32-34 inches of pitch), so many flyers are in for a tighter squeeze unless they pay for those economy seats with extra legroom.

For ideas on how to avoid being squeezed in yourself, check out my post on the Top 10 Ways To Get A Better Economy Seat.

To find out more about the Routehappy report or download it yourself, visit the site's blog.
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