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How to Read an Aircraft Seat Map

June 16, 2019
7 min read
How to Read an Aircraft Seat Map
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If you've checked in online for a flight or selected your seat in advance, you may have been presented with a visual seat map — either allowing you to choose which available seat you would like or showing you where on the plane you will be sitting.

Some seat maps are very easy to read because all seats are either the same or very similar. While others are much more complicated because there is a huge difference between the different seats in the cabin.

Some Basics

You may already know this, but before we get into the complex seat maps, here are some basics:

  • Seat maps are always forward facing, so the top of the map is the front of the plane or cabin and the bottom is the rear of the plane or cabin.
  • Seat maps are not usually to scale — a huge aisle or galley area on a map is unlikely to be how the plane is actually configured. Airlines use every inch of available space to maximize revenue.
  • Each seat is usually represented by a single square — three square together (i.e. in economy) usually means three seats next to each other.
  • Gaps running vertically through the entire seat map usually represent an aisle.
  • Even if the seat map only shows the seats as squares facing forward, the seat could be facing forward, angled toward the aisle or window or even facing backward.
  • Gaps between rows horizontally will usually represent either an exit row or bulkhead (cabin wall at the front of a cabin).
  • A shaded 'flap' on either side of the seat map indicate where the wings are. You may not have a great view out the window if you sit over the wing — unless you like watching the wing.
  • A knife and fork symbol means a galley area where crew store and prepare food and drinks, and the bathroom (male and female) symbol means lavatories. Many passengers avoid selecting seats near a bathroom because of the potential noise and smells, and on busy flights, passengers tend to congregate near bathrooms while they wait.
  • A symbol of a stroller means this is a child-friendly row. Families with babies are usually seated here. If you want a quiet flight, you should avoid these rows.
  • A gap between the seat and the wall and shown in rows 51-53 in the seat map below means that the shape of the aircraft curves narrower at the rear, so it's not wide enough to fit three seats in that space. These seats can be great for traveling with someone else, though there may be a gap between the window seat and the window, which could mean extra storage space but difficulty sleeping for leaning against the window because of the gap.
  • Seat maps will have a legend showing what different colors and symbols on seats mean. Available seats will be one color, with those already selected by other passengers or otherwise unavailable to select in advance a different color. If there is an X on the seat you want to select, this may mean it cannot be reserved in advance and if there is a $ sign on the seat, it means you will need to pay extra to select this seat.

Premium Cabins

Different economy and premium economy seats within the same cabin are usually all quite similar, regardless of airline. They will usually be in some sort of 3-3, 2-4-2, 3-3-3 or 3-4-3 layout. By all means, look for exit rows as explained above, but otherwise, most seats will be the same.

In business and first class cabins, there can be a huge difference in both cabin layouts and best seats between different airlines. This is because there is a bigger difference in business and first class products between airlines than in economy and premium economy seats.

For a four-across 'straight' 1-2-1 seat map where the middle seats all look the same between rows, it means all seats will have direct aisle access. They will either face directly forward and may angle slightly toward the window or aisle in a herringbone layout.

You may wish to avoid either the front or back few rows if they are close to a galley or bathroom — a seat or seats midway back should be a nice balance.

Another popular layout in business class is a staggered 1-2-1 layout. Rather than each seat directly behind the seat in front of it (like the seat map above), this layout will have your feet in lie-flat mode next to the person in front of you, rather than behind.

This means each 'window' seat will be a choice between a seat right next to the window or a seat near the window, but next to the aisle. The 'true' window seats right next to the window (the A and K seats in the map above) tend to be more private. For the center seats, you will see that the rows alternate between rows with two seats very close together and rows with seats far apart. These are often known as 'honeymoon' seats and 'divorce' seats. If you are traveling with a loved one, you may wish to select the pair very close together, while if you are traveling with a colleague or someone you don't want to be super close to, select the divorce seats to provide more space between you.

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Some airlines have a staggered 1-2-1 business class cabin that does space all center seats the same. For a cabin like the one below, there's no center pairs that are closer or farther away — and therefore not really better or worse.

You may also see a large forward/front business class cabin followed by a galley or bathrooms and then a smaller cabin at the rear. The rear business class cabins tend to be smaller and, therefore, quieter and more exclusive feeling. The downside of this can be that meals take longer to serve if crew start serving from the front, so your meal choice may have run out by the time crew get to the rear cabin.

Some airlines will have seat maps detailed enough to show which way the seats actually face. For example, here is a 2-2-2 business class cabin with pairs of seats facing in slightly different directions.

United 787-9 seat map.

First class cabins on the one airline tend to have seats that are very similar in a very small cabin, so unless you are traveling with someone else or especially want a window seat, it's not as important to select the perfect seat in advance.

In addition to checking the seat map on an airline's website, it's useful to check out resources like SeatGuru, which allow you scroll through an airline's fleet for the best and worst seats.

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