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Aviation gurus and frequent flyers tend to focus on the front of the plane — lie-flat beds, enclosed suites and onboard showers are fun to talk about, while the differences between business-class and first-class products can be fairly dramatic. By contrast, all of economy just seems like the same uncomfortable seat in a different color, right? Not quite. When it comes to flying across the US in coach, all birds are not created equal. Here’s a look at the best and worst economy seats aboard nonstop flights between New York and California, in terms of comfort, cabin service and amenities.
But first: Don’t know a Boeing 747 from an Airbus A318? Not to worry: When you’re searching, click the down arrow or “details” button on search engines like Kayak or Google Fights, and the necessary info ought to pop up.
The Worst of the Worst
All Boeing 757s (United, Delta)
The Boeing 757 has long been a darling among airlines and pilots for its range, performance and versatility. Frequent economy flyers, however, are not so enamored with the twin-engined beauty.
Narrower than the comparable Airbus A321, the Boeing 757 tends to be pretty snug in economy. United’s transcontinental 757 coach seats are 17.3 inches wide and 31 inches apart, according to SeatGuru. And Delta’s cabin doesn’t look much better, with 17.2-inch wide economy seats pitched at 31 to 33 inches.
United’s Newest Boeing 777-300ER
What is probably the most comfortable ride up front is the least comfortable in the back. United has poured painstaking marketing and design effort into its new Boeing 777-300ER Polaris business-class cabin, but the compromise for an improved business class, as is typical, is increased pain among economy flyers. United’s 777-300ER, which sometimes appears on your search results as 77W, actually has poorer specifications in the back than the 757s flown by Delta. The upside to this seating configuration, for transcon passengers at least, is that they don’t have to endure the full 15-hour torture session leveled on the poor souls who choose to travel on United across the Pacific.
Somewhere in the Middle
Delta’s Boeing 767s and A330s
There’s just something about a wide-body aircraft that makes long flights seem more comfortable — even when the seats themselves are comparable, having the equivalent of two extra aisles to get up, stretch and walk around can make all the difference. Delta’s fleet of 767s may be aging, but it’s still generally well-appointed. Seats on Delta’s 767s are 18 inches wide and pitched 31 to 33 inches apart. The airline’s A330-200 and A330-300 wide-bodies are slightly more modern and spacious, plus they feature 18-inch-wide economy seats. All of these aircraft fly long-distance international routes, and are thus fleshed out with Delta’s full entertainment offerings, among the best in North America. Sweetening the pot with Delta is an above-average free economy meal service, which typically features a Luvo wrap or sandwich, dessert item and complimentary beverage.
American Airlines’ A321T Custom-Equipped Aircraft
American Airlines operates an entirely unique fleet of modified A321 aircraft on its transcontinental flights. These relatively large, single-aisle jets are the only domestic planes to feature three distinct cabins: main cabin, business class and first class.
For economy passengers, this makes for an intimate environment in the back of the plane, where there are 36 Main Cabin Extra and 36 economy seats. With 72 total economy seats, this cabin is the size of smaller-end regional jets, meaning service is quick back here. AA has also begun offering complimentary sandwiches on transcon main-cabin flights.
Any United 777-200 Without the Polaris Retrofit, or United 767s
Occasionally, United flies 777-200 aircraft with conventional nine-across seating in economy between hubs in Newark, San Francisco and/or Los Angeles — the seats can be as wide as 18.5 inches and are pitched as far as 33 inches apart. While the seats are generally more comfortable than those on other United jets, only former Continental aircraft feature the same fully stocked entertainment options as United’s premium-service 757s. Older United jets sometimes have subpar entertainment systems that can be a bit of a bore.
Note that United will soon begin retrofitting these older 777s with the new Polaris cabin, meaning the cattle-car configuration will be found in the back. Check the seat maps on United.com before booking. Rebranded Continental 777s have 2-2-2 business-class cabins, while old United jets have eight seats spread across business class.
The Best of the Best
Alaska’s (formerly Virgin America’s) Mood-Lit A320
It’s easy to find nice airplanes when flying the former Virgin America fleet, because, well, they’re all nice. The airline recently absorbed into Alaska Airlines operated a fleet of A319, A320 and A321 aircraft with signature black leather seats. Most of them still fly in Virgin America colors but under AS flight numbers. In terms of pure comfort, these are my favorite economy seats operated by any US airline, comparable with economy products on international carriers like Air New Zealand, Emirates and Qatar Airways.
The seats themselves are roughly 18 inches wide and pitched reliably at 32 inches apart, although the hardshell seat-back makes them feel even more spacious, in my opinion. The seats have good lumbar support, but the overall cabin ambience makes an Alaska / Virgin flight an easy way to pass six hours. Food and beverages can be ordered at any time via the touch screen, while water bottles are available in a mini-bar at the rear. The mood lighting takes the cake worldwide, with carefully calibrated color schemes to augment natural light.
Anything From JetBlue
JetBlue, the Queens-based contrarian carrier, gives economy passengers flourishes that other airlines relinquished decades ago. Between New York and California, JetBlue only operates its newest A321 fleet, equipped with lie-flat Mint business-class seating. In the back, passengers find seats 18 inches wide and 33 inches apart, the best specs of any US carrier. Pitch measurements in the airline’s economy section with extra legroom, called Even More Space, are comparable to some first-class cabins. These seats have downright beautiful IFE screens as well.
JetBlue offers amenities on its transcontinental flights that business-class passengers flying overseas might expect, including a fully stocked walk-up snack bar. Meals available for purchase are generally worth the money. Oh, and Wi-Fi is free.
An earlier version of this story stated that the Boeing 757 is a single-engine airplane. We obviously meant single-aisle, and have corrected this regrettable mistake. This story has also been amended to reflect the absorption of Virgin America into Alaska Airlines.
All photos by TPG staff unless otherwise noted.
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