How to Determine What Type of Seat Will Be on Your Next Flight

Jul 4, 2019

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You may be well-versed on different aircraft types and can spot the difference between a Dreamliner and an A380. And you may also know the different products a particular airline operates, like the difference between Qatar’s best business class product versus its worst. You might see a favorable review of a product on TPG or have seen a glossy advertisement of a beautiful-looking cabin and be keen to book that exact experience. But there’s little guarantee you will end up with that unless you know what to look for.

Did you know some airlines operate different products within the same aircraft type? That is because they might have new aircraft delivered with new seats, while the older versions of the same aircraft have different seats. Or they may be part way through a refurbishment program with some aircraft complete while others continue to operate an older product while they wait to go in for new seats.

So how do you ensure you’re getting the type of seat you want and avoid any nasty surprises when you board the flight? Here are some tips. This guide will focus mostly on premium classes, where there can be a huge difference between products within the same airline.

Step 1: Determine which aircraft has the product you want.

There are a few ways of working out which aircraft type will feature the seats you actually want. You can check the airline’s website — it may show images of their best products and provide guidance like ‘Flying exclusively on our Airbus A380 aircraft’, such as Etihad’s enormous First Apartments.

For example, Emirates has three very different business class products. The best offers staggered seating with direct aisle access, privacy and storage with an onboard bar on all its Airbus A380 aircraft. That aircraft is used on all Heathrow and Gatwick services. However, the carrier’s Stansted services are operated by a Boeing 777-300ER, which has a far inferior 2-3-2 cramped, exposed business class configuration that you should avoid.

Emirates A380 Business Class. Photo by Emily McNutt.
Emirates A380 Business Class. (Photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy)
Emirates 777 New Business Class. (Photo by The Points Guy)

Step 2: Ensure that aircraft operates the route you want to fly.

If you know you need to look out for a Boeing Dreamliner but should avoid a Boeing 747 to get the best seat, be sure you’re looking at the aircraft when booking the ticket. When booking your flight, each option should show the aircraft type along with other details like departure and arrival times and duration.

Step 3: Learn your preferred seat map.

We’ve already shown you some basics on how to read a seat map. If possible, learn what the seat map for your preferred flight looks like and then you will know if it’s likely to be a different product/seat. For example, staggered seating with plenty of gaps should mean direct aisle access while blocks of seats together (like a 2-2-2 or 2-3-2 in business class) will mean it would not.

Even if you’ve picked the correct aircraft, there might be different configurations and products depending on which version of that aircraft is scheduled to operate your flight. If you know your preferred seat map, you’ll quickly know if it’s the product you want, regardless of the aircraft type.

United Polaris 767 Business Class. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)

Step 3: Try and monitor aircraft swaps.

Now unfortunately, even the best airlines in the world are known to change aircraft. This can be for circumstances out of their control, such as the worldwide Boeing 737 MAX groundings, or they may choose to change to a bigger or smaller aircraft based on the unexpectedly high or low demand for your flight.

Changes can happen well in advance. If the flight time doesn’t change, it is unlikely the airline will notify you, as they don’t consider it a material change. Your flight may change to an aircraft with exactly the same seat, or may change to a completely different product. If you know about this in advance, you can contact the airline to explain the situation. If you have specifically booked a product that has changed to an inferior product, the airline may let you change — although there may be a small change fee.

But aircraft swaps can happen at the last minute — even just hours before your flight departs. So how can you monitor this both in advance and at the last minute? Use sources like ExpertFlyer and FlightRadar24 to check what aircraft type is scheduled to operate your flight. ExpertFlyer also allows you to set alerts if your selected seat changes.

Qatar Airways Boeing 777 Qsuite business class. (Photo by Zach Honig / The Points Guy)
Qatar Airways 787 business class. (Photo by Eric Rosen / The Points Guy)

Step 4: Accept that some things are out of your control.

Depending on the airline, route and product, you may end up in an inferior seat type and there could be little you could do about it. Sure, if you were flying an airline that has eight flights a day on your route, you may be able to change. But if you suffer an equipment swap or downgrade on a route that is only twice weekly, you’re pretty much stuck unless you substantially change your travel plans.

This can happen to even the most savvy frequent flyers, so take the above steps to try and mitigate your chances but prepare for the fact that with traveling, even the best plans can go wrong.

Featured image by The Points Guy

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