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TPG’s picks for the best economy seats on domestic flights

Oct. 01, 2019
21 min read
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Editor's Note

After the first three positions, separating Nos. 4 through 7 becomes very difficult, to the point where they're almost interchangeable. Each airline in these positions has strengths and weaknesses relative to each other that result in a very similar experience. But where they rank for you as an individual traveler will depend on what you value in an economy flight, and — frequently — what type of aircraft is used on your specific flight. On American, in particular, the experience can swing wildly from one aircraft type to another. This is what we came up with at TPG, but feel free to share how you'd rank the airlines in the comments.

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It’s fun to review fabulous first-class suites and the best business-class amenities. But the truth is the vast majority of flyers (yes, even TPG staffers) still fly economy most of the time. Given that, we sought to rank the best U.S. domestic economy seats you can expect these days.

Each experience can vary from flight to flight, even on the same airline. But there’s no arguing with cold, hard facts like seat dimensions, screen sizes and entertainment options. For these rankings, we’ve restricted our criteria to these concrete data points. And we’re only talking about standard economy seats — no Main Cabin Extra, Comfort+ or extra-legroom options.

We've based this decision on several variables: seat comfort, availability of personal inflight-entertainment screens, availability of power and availability of Wi-Fi. We have consulted airline seat maps, SeatGuru’s extremely useful comparison guide and, when inflight entertainment has to be streamed, information from Gogo Inflight and other inflight internet providers.

Keep in mind that some U.S. airlines -- notably American Airlines, Delta and United -- fly a large variety of aircraft, and even the seats on the same type of jet can vary depending on age and fleet refurbishment. So you’ll always want to double-check your specific flight and plane before booking.

From the very best to, well, the not so great, here are our rankings of the best domestic economy seat experiences currently available in the U.S.

*Editor's note: After the first three positions, separating Nos. 4 through 7 becomes very difficult, to the point where they're almost interchangeable. Each airline in these positions has strengths and weaknesses relative to each other that result in a very similar experience. But where they rank for you as an individual traveler will depend on what you value in an economy flight, and — frequently — what type of aircraft is used on your specific flight. On American, in particular, the experience can swing wildly from one aircraft type to another. This is what we came up with at TPG, but feel free to share how you'd rank the airlines in the comments.

The best domestic economy seats in the U.S.

  1. JetBlue: The most spacious seats easily make JetBlue the winner.
  2. Delta: Seats might not be larger than competitors, but a more consistent fleet with IFE screens and in-seat power options bump this airline up the list.
  3. Southwest: Decent seat dimensions and inexpensive Wi-Fi make up for a lack of seatback entertainment, though there's no power on board.
  4. Alaska:* Relatively roomy seat footprints, power at each seat and consistency throughout the fleet, but no seatback entertainment.
  5. American:* A fairly standard experience boosted by excellent fleetwide Wi-Fi.
  6. United:* Some of the narrowest seats around and spotty inflight power.
  7. Hawaiian:* The seats themselves are nice enough, but there are no AC outlets, and only paid entertainment on many flights.
  8. Spirit: Tiny seats and few amenities, though inflight Wi-Fi should be coming soon. Ish.
  9. Frontier: Seat pitch is between 28 and 29 inches, and Wi-Fi isn't even on the horizon. Need we say more?

1. JetBlue Airways

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

While JetBlue’s stunning Mint business-class product gets a lot of attention, the airline’s economy seats top our list thanks to roomy dimensions and standardization across the fleet. No wonder it consistently gets high marks from staff members.

Seats: For now, JetBlue just has a few types of planes in its fleet: Airbus A320s and A321s and Embraer E190s. Regular economy seats on all measure up to 18 inches wide with 32 to 33 inches of pitch — the most of any airline in the U.S.

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(Photo by Sarah Silbert/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: JetBlue also pulls ahead in the rankings thanks to the fact that it offers free high-speed Fly-Fi service from gate to gate for every customer. As the fleet undergoes cabin refurbishment, the airline is standardizing screens to 10 inches wide. Passengers can watch 36 channels of free DirecTV, play 100 channels of SiriusXM and, on flights longer than two hours, browse a handful of free movies that change every month. Passengers will also find more in-seat power outlets and USB outlets on refurbished planes.

TPG tip: JetBlue TrueBlue members can redeem points at fairly fixed values (TPG pegs them around 1.3 cents apiece) for award tickets on the airline. Rather than having to search for special award space, members can simply redeem points for any free seat, though prices will vary based on paid fares. If you have yet to accrue many TrueBlue points by flying, the airline’s JetBlue Plus Card is one of our top all-round airline credit card picks thanks to great earning categories. TrueBlue is also a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a 1:0.8 ratio, Chase Ultimate Rewards at a 1:1 ratio, Citi ThankYou at a 1:1 ratio and of Capital One Rewards at a 2:1 ratio.

2. Delta Air Lines

A Delta Airlines Boeing 737-700 takes off from Atlanta (Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

Another massive fleet with around 20 different types of planes means that flyers might not know what they’re getting when they step on board. But economy seats are pretty standard from plane to plane on Delta.

Seats: Depending on the type of aircraft operating your flight, your economy seat might be anywhere from 17.2 to 18.6 inches wide and have 30 to 32 inches of pitch.

(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

The widest seats are on Delta’s new A220s, where the economy cabin is in a 2–3 configuration rather than the 3–3 on other single-aisle planes. Delta's Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s are also pretty good, with seats that are 18 inches across as the standard. The most you can hope for in terms of pitch is 32 inches, which you can find on some Boeing 737s and 757s, some of the A330s Delta flies on transcontinental flights, and a few of the smaller planes.

Entertainment: Delta was the first major carrier to offer free seatback entertainment via its Delta Studio system, and it continues to offer a great selection. You’ll find seatback screens on its mainline fleet (save for the soon-to-retire MD-88s, MD-90s and Boeing 717s) and entertainment via Wi-Fi on the regional jets. Speaking of Wi-Fi, the airline is also testing offering free inflight Wi-Fi, but you still have to pay for now. The airline also offers USB ports on nearly all its jets (again, with the exception of the MDs and 717s) and in-seat power plugs on most aircraft.

TPG tip: Although redeeming Delta SkyMiles can be a mixed bag -- and a bad value for certain premium awards -- now that Delta has switched to a dynamic pricing model for award tickets, many economy awards have actually gone down in price outside of the most popular travel dates. Just earlier this year, we even saw round-trip economy tickets on some domestic itineraries price out as low as 11,000 miles, so be on the lookout for deal alerts and flash sales.

3. Southwest Airlines

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy.)

The airline’s Boeing 737 MAXes are out of service for the time being, but here’s what you’ll find on the rest of its Boeing 737-700s and 737-800s.

Seats: While not the widest, at 17 to 17.8 inches across, seats do have a decent pitch of 31 inches on the 737-700s and between 32 and 33 inches on the 737-800s.

(Photo by Jessica Puckett/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Don’t expect seatback screens, but passengers can access free movies, messaging, music and 16 channels of live TV on their own mobile devices, tablets or laptops. Wi-Fi is also available for the low price of $8 per day per device. (Here are some cards that can get you inflight Wi-Fi for free.) However, one major downfall of Southwest's fleet is that there are no power outlets at any seat, meaning you have to arrive fully charged before a flight and hope your device makes it for the duration.

TPG tip: Like JetBlue TrueBlue, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent-flyer system is a fixed-value program where flyers earn between 6 and 12 points per dollar on airfare and can redeem those points for about 1.5 to 1.7 cents apiece toward tickets. If you want to build up your balance, Southwest introduced the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card both of which are excellent choices packed with perks. Don’t forget, if you earn 125,000 Rapid Rewards points (transfers from Chase Ultimate Rewards don’t count, though card welcome bonuses do) in a calendar year, you can score the airline’s phenomenal two-for-one Companion Pass.

4. Alaska Airlines

(Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy.)

By taking over Virgin America, Alaska diversified its fleet (slightly) and has since been working to standardize seat sizes and types across all its jets.

Seats: We’re going to concentrate on the workhorses of Alaska’s fleet: Boeing 737-800s and 900s, and Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s. The seats on the Airbuses (Virgin’s former planes) are mostly 17.7 to 18 inches wide and have 31 to 32 inches of pitch. Those on the Boeing 737s are a mere 17 inches wide and have 31 to 32 inches of pitch.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Unfortunately, as Alaska killed off Virgin and decided to refurbish its cabin interiors, the airline began to remove seatback entertainment systems. It should complete the transition before the end of 2019. Instead, passengers can stream the airline’s Alaska Beyond Entertainment content for free over their personal devices, which includes a library of over 400 movies and 200 TV shows. With the exception of those aboard Boeing 737-700s, every economy seat should have its own power and USB ports.

TPG tip: Not part of any alliance, Alaska Mileage Plan nonetheless has plenty of phenomenal airline partners with whom you can earn and redeem miles, including American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Qantas and Emirates, among others. The airline even prices certain short-haul tickets on its own flights as low as 5,000 miles each way, which can be a phenomenal deal. Those with the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card and the Alaska Airlines Visa Business® card get an annual companion ticket, which allows cardholders to buy one Alaska economy ticket and get the second for a Fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from just $22)

5. American Airlines

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.)

American’s fleet is as diverse as they come, with more than 20 different aircraft types. For the sake of these rankings, though, let’s just stick to the ones you’re likely to encounter on mainline domestic flights, namely Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s; Boeing 737s and 757s; Bombardier CRJ-200, 700 and 900 series jets; and Embraer ERJ-145s, 175s and 190s. The airline’s 737 MAXes are grounded for now.

Seats: For the most part, Main Cabin (read: regular economy) seats are 16.3 to 18 inches wide and have 30 to 32 inches of pitch. The A320s and nontranscontinental A321s have some of the narrowest seats. Boeing 737s and Airbus A319s have the least pitch, at just 30 inches.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Whether or not your plane has seatback entertainment screens will depend not only on the type of plane you’re flying, but also how new it is. Before booking a flight, be sure to check the onboard amenities for your specific aircraft. Among the planes that don’t have seatback screens are some A319s, A320s, A321s, the currently offline 737 MAX, some 737-800s and the Bombardier CRJs and Embraers. The good news is, with the exception of the smaller Bombardier and Embraer planes, the whole fleet has paid Wi-Fi available on board.

TPG tip: We have a comprehensive guide on how to redeem American Airlines AAdvantage miles for the best value. But there are two key pieces of advice. First, in economy, you might get more value out of British Airways Avios (which are transferable from Amex, Chase and Citi) on certain short-haul flights because redemptions are distance-based. The second is, if you have certain AAdvantage cobranded credit cards, including the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®, Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard and AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard, among others, you might be eligible for reduced-mileage domestic economy awards that change from month to month and are 1,000 to 7,500 miles cheaper per round-trip.

6. United

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy.)

Another behemoth with nearly 800 planes in its fleet, United mainly flies Boeing 737-700s, 800s and 900s (737 MAXes are grounded for now); 757-200s and 300s; and Airbus A319s and A320s on its domestic routes. You can find the airline’s newest planes, Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners, on some transcontinental flights from Newark (EWR) to both San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX).

Seats: On the single-aisle Boeings, seats are a mere 16 to 17.3 inches wide and have just 30 to 31 inches of pitch. That makes for a tight space, especially on transcontinental flights.

Cabin shot from after the flight.
(Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Whether you’ll have a seatback system or will need to bring your own device depends not just on the type of plane but also on the exact variant of each aircraft type. The best way to know what you’ll get is to check the amenities of your specific flight. At least there are plenty of movies and other options to choose from, and they’re free. Check this page for inflight power updates, but just know that most of the airline’s short-haul domestic planes only have power ports from the exit rows forward, and on others, you’ll be sharing with a neighbor. On the plus side, all mainline and two-cabin regional jets feature inflight Wi-Fi for purchase (when it works, of course).

TPG tip: Like Delta, United plans to pull its award charts soon and shift to a dynamic pricing model for awards on its own fleet. Though that means premium awards are likely to shoot up in price, hopefully economy awards will drop somewhat on inexpensive routings. Here are some tips for maximizing your redemptions.

7. Hawaiian Airlines

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Concentrating mainly on flights between the islands and the U.S. mainland, Hawaiian offers flyers a mix of Airbus A330s and A321neos.On short interisland flights, the aircraft are mainly Boeing 717s and ATR 42-500s.

Seats: Main cabin seats on the A330 are laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration and are mostly 18 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch. On the A321neo, which we recently reviewed, seats are laid out 3–3 and are 17.3 inches wide with 30 inches of pitch.

(Photo by Wallace Cotton/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment and Wi-Fi: On the A321neo, passengers must stream entertainment onto their own devices via the Hawaiian Airlines app. The A330 has seatback entertainment screens. The airline’s long-haul flights from Honolulu (HNL) to New York-JFK and Boston (BOS) have some free content, though it’s pay-for-play on others. Economy seats have USB power ports but no AC plugs, and there’s no inflight Wi-Fi.

TPG tip: Awards on Hawaiian Airlines using HawaiianMiles start at 20,000 each way to the West Coast and 30,000 to the East Coast. If you need to rack those up, the Hawaiian Airlines Mastercard recently offered a historically high sign-up bonus of 60,000 miles after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. Otherwise, one of the best ways to redeem miles for flights on Hawaiian is via Virgin Atlantic Flying Club, which is a transfer partner of Amex, Chase and Citi. Flights from Hawaii to the West Coast start at 20,000 miles each way, but those to the East Coast are 40,000. JetBlue is another partner, and it charges 22,000 TrueBlue points each way between the West Coast and Hawaii, and 30,000 to the East Coast.

8. Spirit Airlines

(Photo by Javier Rodriguez/The Points Guy.)

Like Frontier, this no-frills airline just flies Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s.

Seats: The seats are 17.75 to 17.9 inches wide and have 28 to 29 inches of pitch. The Big Front Seats are much bigger, but again, we are focusing on regular old economy, and those are quite tight.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Spirit will begin the process of installing high-speed Wi-Fi with streaming capability across its fleet later this year and hopes to finish by the end of 2020, and there are now in-seat power or USB ports.

TPG tip: Use them or lose them — Spirit Airlines miles expire after just three months of no activity, so unless you fly often, redeem them as soon as possible.

9. Frontier

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 9: Frontier employees and executives physically pull a 46-ton Airbus A320 out of the Frontier Airlines hanger at Denver International Airport in Denver. The plane reveals the new paint scheme of the Frontier logo reverting to the stylized "F" to look like that from the logo first introduced in 1978. The iconic animals on the plane's tale will stay and will be featured more prominently extending from the tale to the aft fuselage of the aircraft. (Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
(Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images.)

This low-cost carrier only operates Airbus A319s, A320s and A321s, and the seats are knee-crushingly similar across them all.

Seats: On the A319s, you’ll find seat pitch varies from 28 to 29 inches on some planes and is 31 inches on others. Here’s a hint: The planes with more pitch have 26 rows, while those with less have 27. Seat pitch on the A320s and A321s is only 28 to 29 inches. In other words, tall flyers, beware if you are ponying up for a seat with more legroom! Seat width varies by aircraft, too, and whether you’re in a window, middle or aisle, but ranges from a mere 16.5 inches up to 19.1 inches.

(Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.)

Entertainment: Load your own devices with content and prepare to go offline. Frontier does not have inflight Wi-Fi, onboard entertainment or even in-seat power on its planes.

TPG tip: Frontier recently introduced a new credit card, the Barclays Frontier Airlines World Mastercard, which earns both redeemable and elite miles. It also overhauled its mileage program last year and added new features like points pooling among family members.

Bottom line

Not all seats are created equal, even in the back of the plane. The experience of flying with a few more inches of legroom and seat width, along with complimentary entertainment (or at least access to Wi-Fi) can lead to a more pleasant flight than one with nothing to do and no space to do it in. So look to JetBlue when possible if you want to fly in some of the best regular economy seats in the U.S., and prepare accordingly when signing yourself up for as little as 16.5 inches of width and 28 inches of pitch on the ultra low-cost carriers.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Honig)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.