We flew some of the worst airline seats in America so you don't have to
Emirates first class. Qatar Airways Qsuite. Singapore A380 Suite. These are probably what comes to mind when you think of the best and most luxurious airline seats.
But what about when it comes to the exact opposite? TPG's Benji Stawski and Stella Shon took to the skies to test out some of the worst seats to fly in the U.S. The definition of the "worst seat" is subjective, but we're generally talking no window at a window seat, seats with no recline, seats on older jets — you get the gist. We're intentionally leaving out ultra-low-cost carriers like Spirit and Frontier because, well, those seats are expected to be less comfortable in exchange for lower fares.
Let's see how they fared and if these seats were truly the worst, and we'll also share some tips on avoiding bad seats when booking your flight.
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American Airlines E170
Benji Stawski, strategic travel reporter
For my "worst seat" challenge, I decided to fly from New York's LaGuardia Airport (LGA) to Boston (BOS) and back on American Airlines — a regional jet on the outbound and a mainline aircraft for the return.
The regional jet I flew was an Embraer E170 operated by Republic Airways on behalf of American Eagle. It's used mostly for shorter routes out of LGA to cities like Atlanta (ATL), Nashville (BNA), Cleveland (CLE) and North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham (RDU). It has a fairly spacious arrangement with just 65 seats total: 12 first-class seats, 20 Main Cabin Extra seats and 33 economy seats.
Since it's a relatively new addition to American's fleet, the seat map for this aircraft wasn't available on SeatGuru yet, so there were no ratings for me to base my seat selection on. However, there was a solo seat at the very end of the cabin that immediately caught my attention: Seat 21D. On one hand, it could've turned out to be the best seat on the plane since it guaranteed no one could sit next to me, or it could be the worst seat since it was in the last row (read: limited recline) and right next to the lavatory.
Interestingly, I couldn't pick this seat right away. Instead, I had to wait to switch to the seat during check-in because it was initially blocked off for those who may need special assistance.
Related: 7 tips for picking the perfect airplane seat every time
Upon boarding, I thought to myself, "How bad could this experience really be?" There are no middle seats in any row, there are power outlets in every row, the seats are wider than on most other planes and the windows feel larger than usual.
I was glad to have early boarding through my elite status though, because there probably wouldn't have been any overhead bin space left had I boarded last.
Related: A beginners guide to American Airlines economy seats
After a swift walk to the very back of the plane, I made it to my seat: 21D. Unlike what the seat map showed, there were two seats in my row. However, the window seat was permanently blocked off.
The reason for the blocked seat is that American has capped its capacity at 65 seats Is due to a scope clause it has with its pilots. American can only outsource a limited amount of flying to its regional partners, based on the number of seats in each regional jet. Since American can only operate a certain percentage of regional jets seating 66 to 76 passengers, it strategically sells just 65 seats on the E170s so that they don’t count toward the limit on larger jets.
And, in an unexpected twist, the lead flight attendant came to the back of the plane shortly after boarding to say the crew needed to move two passengers from the last two rows to first class for weight and balance reasons. While I declined, my neighbors gladly accepted the free upgrades from some of the worst seats on the plane to the best.
Although I boarded my flight with a positive outlook, it didn't take long for me to realize how tight the pitch was.
So that my knees wouldn't touch the seat in front, I ended up taking advantage of the extra space next to me and sitting at an angle for most of the flight.
It was also nice to have some extra table space from the blocked seat next to me.
However, the seat ultimately had more cons than pros. As expected, being in the last row, the seat didn't recline at all.
Although I wasn't too bothered by the lack of recline since there was no one sitting in front of me, I would have definitely felt cramped had that not been the case. Even without the seat in front of me reclined, it was a bit difficult to comfortably work on the tray table. Apart from that, being at the back of the plane meant a slightly bumpier ride than for those sitting closer to the wings.
Also, although not an issue on this flight, being so close to the lavatory could become bothersome. The lavatory was located adjacent to the service area so it could get cramped if a line were to form.
Finally, deplaning took longer than usual. Being in the last row meant that I'd be the last passenger off the plane, which could be an issue for those with tight connections.
All in all, my seat wasn't that bad. After all, I didn't have a seatmate and I had the chance of an upgrade to first class. However, due to the lack of recline, close proximity to the lavatory, extra bumps and slow deplaning, I wouldn't pick it over a standard economy seat.
American Airlines A319
Benji Stawski, strategic travel reporter
For my return, I flew on American's A319 — a mainline aircraft used for routes as short as Boston to New York to ones as long as New York to Bogota, Colombia (a nearly six-hour flight).
For this flight, I once again selected a seat in the last row of economy: Seat 27A, a "red" seat according to SeatGuru. The rating noted that recline would be limited, that personal space would be reduced when the seat in front is reclined and that the proximity to the galley and lavatories might be bothersome.
Again, the seat was originally blocked off for those needing special assistance, but I was able to select it at check-in.
The economy cabin had 24 Main Cabin Extra seats and 96 Main Cabin seats spread across 19 rows. Unlike my flight to Boston, the cabin was arranged in a more traditional 3-3 configuration.
Again, I was glad to have priority boarding as the overhead bins filled up quickly. Even if you don't have elite status, you can secure early boarding with a cobranded American Airlines credit card.
Related: Is airline elite status still worth it?
Legroom was better than on the regional jet, but still tight. Standard coach seats were 17.3 to 18 inches wide and offered 30 inches of pitch.
Luckily, the middle seat next to me remained open for the entire flight — an upshot of being in a row that was blocked until check-in. This allowed me to stretch my legs a bit and have some more elbow room. It would've definitely been a tight squeeze had someone been seated next to me.
As expected, being in the last row meant that my seat had no recline — not even a limited recline. Although I was fine staying upright for the hourlong flight, I would've certainly been uncomfortable on a longer flight.
My 15-inch laptop fit on the tray table with just enough room to get work done, though it got very cramped once the person in front of me reclined their seat.
Just behind the last row was a pair of lavatories. Again, not a major issue on this short flight, but a line to use them could become bothersome on longer flights — not to mention any noxious odors from the bathroom door constantly opening and closing.
Unlike on Delta's A319, American did not have in-flight entertainment screens — just streaming entertainment. There weren't any personal device holders either.
Overall, this flight ended up being more comfortable than the one on the regional jet but only because the seat next to me remained open. I personally wouldn't take the gamble of selecting a seat in the last row hoping the seat next to you stays open.
The inability to recline can make the seat feel claustrophobic, and the proximity to the bathrooms can definitely be bothersome. Plus, on flights with food for sale, sitting at the back means you're last to be served so the flight attendants might run out of options by the time they get to you.
Delta Air Lines CRJ-900
Stella Shon, writer
Delta's most-used regional jet is the Bombardier CRJ-900 with 70 seats, which is often used for short hops like my flight from RDU to LGA. There are 12 first-class seats, 20 Comfort+ seats and 44 economy seats.
For this flight, I wanted to try something slightly different and picked a seat that didn’t seem like the “worst seat” – at least not at first. On SeatGuru, I noticed that Seat 5B — although a Comfort+ seat — was noted as a "red" seat for several reasons. It's not just the fact that it's a bulkhead seat with a misaligned window, but Seat 5B noticeably sticks out into the aisle and has a tray table in the armrest, reducing the overall seat width.
This goes to show that even if you choose a Delta Comfort+ seat for more legroom, you may actually be inconvenienced more if you don't scope out warnings on a site like SeatGuru' before your flight.
At first glance, the seat looked promising. Delta Comfort+ offers 34 inches of legroom (compared to just 31 inches in Main Cabin). Besides that, however, there are really not that many differences between the two types of seats.
The most unusual aspect of the configuration on this plane is that the aisle shifts diagonally once you walk past first class and move into the rest of the aircraft. When sitting down (and not stretching my legs), my right foot was immediately in the aisle. This made for an uncomfortable experience as people were walking down the aisle with their suitcases, as my legs felt cramped until everyone was finally seated.
I was sitting in a bulkhead seat, but since I only had a backpack with me, I would normally stow it under the seat in front of me. However, for Seat 5B, there is no underseat storage.
Plus, the overhead bins were very small. If you have a carry-on bag, you likely will have to check it at the gate.
Fortunately, nobody sat in the window seat next to me. Once we took off, I moved my bag from the overhead bin to under the seat in front of 5A.
Because of the immovable armrests, I wasn't able to stretch my legs out diagonally. Plus, this contributed to a narrower seat width. Had I not been sitting in Row 5, I would have been able to move the armrests and sprawl out.
I always find the tray table in the armrests to feel clunky and awkward. Once we were in the air, it was time for me to bring out my laptop and get some work done. Thankfully, the tray table just barely fit my 15-inch laptop.
Since the flight was so short, I only purchased 30 minutes of Wi-Fi for $4.99. Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi didn't work for 15 minutes, and by the end of the session, we were preparing to land (and I had to put my laptop away).
Though the window was slightly misaligned, it definitely wasn't the biggest detractor on this flight.
Overall, I found it interesting that one of the "worst" seats as coded by SeatGuru was a seat in Comfort+. There were many quirks of this seat, but I'd say the most uncomfortable aspect was that the seat protrudes into the aisle.
When booking this flight on Delta's website, I would never have been able to discern that this would be one of the worst seats. So, next time you're upgraded or want to purchase a Comfort+ seat, be sure to check a site like SeatGuru very carefully as some seats are actually worse than sitting in economy.
JetBlue Airways E190
Stella Shon, writer
For this "worst seat" challenge, I picked a seat on JetBlue's E190 — the smallest aircraft that the carrier flies. Boasting 100 economy seats in a 2-2 configuration, the E190 is small, but mighty. I've always found the aircraft to be comfortable as there are no middle seats and an impressive 32 inches of legroom.
However, the E190 is almost 13 years old, making it one of the oldest aircraft in JetBlue's lineup — and its age is really starting to show. However, JetBlue has begun its exit strategy for the jet, with plans to replace the E190s with its all-new A220s that are more operationally efficient and have 40 more seats.
That said, I've flown on E190s dozens of times as JetBlue is often my carrier of choice when flying to and from New York and my hometown airport of RDU, but I've never flown the "worst seat" on the aircraft. According to SeatGuru, seats to avoid include, unsurprisingly, the last row and the bulkhead.
For this flight, I decided to book Seat 11C. There's no recline since this row is directly in front of the exit row.
When booking this flight, JetBlue alerted me with the following message: "All JetBlue seats are comfy and offer the most legroom in coach. Due to its location on the plane, this seat does not recline."
I appreciated this message when booking this seat. If I hadn't checked SeatGuru beforehand — or if I was a novice traveler with no knowledge of what the "worst" seat on an aircraft was — I would have had no idea that the seats in Row 11 didn't recline.
Bright and early Monday morning, I showed up at JetBlue's Terminal 5 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Thankfully, security was a breeze thanks to TSA PreCheck and I only had a backpack as my personal item onboard.
Fortunately, boarding was just as simple — wouldn't it be nice if it was always this easy?
The plane was mostly full, but I quickly found my seat. What's unique about JetBlue's E190 is that every seat comes with a seatback TV.
Although I had a neighbor to my right, my seat looked and felt just as spacious as any other seat, save for the Even More Space seats. When initially sitting down, the lack of recline didn't particularly bother me.
Even though I'm just 5 feet, 3 inches, I appreciated the extra legroom — around 1 to 2 inches more than other domestic carriers offer in economy. The seatback TVs don't always work anymore, but I mostly use them for the live map feature that tracks your flight.
Unfortunately, due to some delays on the runway, our plane sat on the tarmac for 45 minutes. While not a big deal, that's when I really wished I had the ability to recline my seat. As you can see, there's no button to recline your chair whatsoever.
Then, I met the circle of doom as I was trying to connect to JetBlue's complimentary Wi-Fi (otherwise known as Fly-Fi). Unfortunately, it wasn't working for me and several other passengers throughout the entire duration of the flight. Nor were there snacks onboard due to a shortage.
Overall, was it the worst seat I've ever flown? No, as I think that JetBlue's onboard product is still solid as ever. My neck pillow saved the day when the recline wasn't available.
Though there were several hiccups that were not seat-related, I wouldn't fly this specific seat again. But thankfully, JetBlue informs you if you're picking a seat with no recline, so customers can avoid this moving forward.
How to avoid picking the worst seat
Book standard economy
First things first: You'll probably want to avoid booking a basic-economy fare if you don't want to end up in a bad seat. These fares either charge extra to select a seat or don't even give you the option. So, you should always expect the worst when booking these fares.
Use SeatGuru before choosing your seat
In addition to TPG flight reviews, SeatGuru is a terrific resource to parse through seat maps based on aircraft type. Additionally, the website color-codes seats as green (good), yellow ("be aware, see comments") and red (bad). Some seats may not be assigned a color if they're standard seats with no comments worth pointing out.
If you have seat selection in your fare, it takes just a few extra seconds to ensure that you're not sitting in the "worst seat." Especially in Stella's experience: She picked a Comfort+ seat on Delta that ended up being not so comfortable after all. Trust us — you'll thank yourself later.
Check the warning on the airline's website when booking
This tip isn't entirely foolproof, since some airlines may not warn you when you're picking the worst seat on an aircraft.
Related: How to avoid choosing a window seat with no window
Know which seats to generally avoid
- Seats in front of the emergency exit row: If the website doesn't warn you beforehand, make sure to never pick a seat in a row in front of the emergency exit. Regardless of airline or aircraft, these seats will never recline due to federal safety regulations.
- Bulkhead seats: While this is more of a personal preference, bulkhead seats can often provide more discomfort than comfort. Although nobody is reclining into your seat, you can't fully stretch out your legs because of the wall in front. Often, your in-seat entertainment (if any) will also be on the wall, and your tray table will be in your armrest. There's also usually no underseat storage in these rows.
- Seats by the lavatory: On larger aircraft, there are lavatories in the middle of the plane and not just the very back (or front). This one's pretty self-explanatory, but people will constantly be up and down the aisle next to you when you sit by the lavatory.
- Last row: While this may seem like a no-brainer, seats in the last row do not recline as there's a wall behind. Plus, you're next to the rear lavatories.
Your seat can make or break your flying experience — especially when flying in economy. Luckily, with a little bit of research, it's not hard to avoid truly "bad" seats. Although rare, in some cases, having the worst seat on the plane could land you a free upgrade to first class or an empty middle seat, as Benji experienced.