Airline Discounters Win the Legroom Wars


So who offers more in coach? Several of the airlines that charge less offer more, and that is a problem for the higher-cost airlines. The discounters already routinely offered superior service in other ways, for instance, more sophisticated in-flight entertainment and in some cases, leather seats in economy.

JetBlue has 16 toward-the-rear rows on its A320s that have 34 inches of seat pitch (rows 11-26); the first 10 rows have 32 inches. Frontier Airlines A319s are laid out with at least 33 inches of space per row. Southwest has a minimum of 32 inches in its 737-700s; Southwest’s average is closer to 33 inches.

For road warriors, the availability of first-class seats for upgrading is often a far more powerful incentive than measurements of legroom in coach. To that end, American is adding two first-class seats to its MD-80s by taking out the coat closet at the rear of the first-class cabin.

But a majority of people fly coach, and an inch or two can make a huge difference in comfort.

It works both ways — in length and in width. Airbus A320s generally have wider seats than Boeing’s 757s and 737s because the fuselage is wider. United’s “Economy Plus” seats on A320s, both mainline and on its “Ted” discount operation, have the roomiest coach seats among major airlines with 36 inches of seat pitch and 18 inches of width. “Economy Plus” seats on United’s 757s, by contrast, are only 17 inches wide.

JetBlue’s 18-inch wide seats on its A320s are certainly attractive, especially in the back of the plane with 34 inches of pitch and perks like satellite television. Frontier’s A319s come close, too, at 33 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width, plus 24 channels of satellite television at each seat.

It used to be that discount carriers meant cramped seating on old planes with few amenities. But no more. With the exception of “Economy Plus,” airlines that once billed themselves as full-service when they still offered food, pillows, and legroom now are trying to get higher fares for a weaker product-at least one that is weaker in the knees.

Airline Legroom Infographic

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