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Choosing aircraft seat

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Choosing aircraft seat

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This is a travel topic, and an appendix to Fundamentals of flying and Tips for flying.

Aircraft seats can be designated at booking, or at check-in at the airport. If seats are not designated, passengers take them by a first-come rule.

A few airlines do not assign seats (e.g., Southwest), but do assign you a boarding group based on how early you confirm your flight on-line within 24 hours of the flight.

As they receive your booking for a specific flight, most airlines will promptly assign you a seat. If so, visit its web-site soon after, and if dissatisfied with the automatic selection, see if you can choose another inter-actively from all available seats on the plane in your cabin class. If you are checking in at the airline's counter with no seat yet assigned, you should ask if a desirable seat is still available.

Seats on a row[edit]

What's desirable? Different seat types on a plane have advantages over others:

Window seats are popular with many flyers, as they allow you to look out the window, rest your head against it while sleeping and not be disturbed by other passengers. The major downside is that you'll have to clamber over a seatmate or two to go to the bathroom or access any of your carry-ons in the overhead (although most airlines also allow you to stow baggage under the seat in front of you). You may also have slightly less floor space due to the curvature of the plane, and the wall can become quite cool.

Aisle seats are the choice of some road warriors, because they make it easy to get out and off the plane. On long flights, though, it's hard to sleep with people walking by, seatmates climbing over you, and the risk of an elbow being hit by a service trolley. Planes usually disembark row-by-row, so a seat further forward will often get you out at your destination quicker than an aisle seat farther back.

The third possibility is middle seats, which combine the disadvantages of both aisle and window seats without the advantages of either, although taller passengers may still be able to see the view from the window.

On well-equipped aircraft, some seats in each row may have entertainment electronics installed underneath. This can significantly compromise foot room for those seated behind. Poor foot room can be a major annoyance and source of discomfort on long flights. SeatGuru (noted just below) can help you avoid this.


There are some special rows too:

  • Exit row seats are located next to the emergency exit rows, and have significantly greater legroom than standard seats. You also have easier access to the aisles regardless of whether you are sitting in an exit or the aisle seat. A disadvantage of these seats is that the tray tables are tucked into the armrests on some aircraft and as a result, you can't lift the armrests. This shouldn't be much of a problem when you have occupants beside you, but if there is none you may want all the space to yourself. In addition, some carriers may require all your hand baggage to go in the overhead compartment if you are in these rows since no other seats are directly in front of you. In theory, passengers in these seats are required to help attendants with the door in an emergency, so you might not be allowed to sit there if you are physically unable to help, if you are deaf or blind, if you are a child or supervising a child or if you are pregnant. Because of the desirability of exit-row seats, some airlines now charge extra for them, using the name "Economy Plus" or similar. If you're very tall you may sometimes get these seats without paying but don't count on it. Ask specifically at check-in and state the reason you want one.
  • Bulkhead seats are in the first row of each section and thus have no seat reclining into you. The legroom is different from other seats -- sometimes better but sometimes worse. They're often the only seats that can be outfitted with infant bassinets, so most airlines reserve them for families with small children. You may be able to snag one on check-in (some airlines assign them as regular seats without request) or even at the gate, but then you run the risk of sitting next to a screaming baby for your entire flight. Like exit rows, you have to store all your baggage overhead.

The advantages and disadvantages of various seats on many aircraft can be viewed at SeatGuru -- [1]. Those wishing to avoid airsickness should choose seats over the wings of the aircraft, near the center of gravity. Occupants of those seats tend to feel less turbulence than passengers on window seats.

Passengers who want a bit more elbow room (even in economy class) should choose the last row of window seats on the plane. Due to the curvature of the plane, window seat passengers near the end of the plane may have a tad more elbow room on the window side...sometimes enough to fit a medium-sized totebag. However:

  • "Window seats" in the back row may in fact offer nothing more than a blank wall.
  • If close to the lavatories or a galley, you may be bothered by passengers or odors.

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