The Straight and Narrow of International Airline Seats

Lockwood is a Los Angeles-based writer who flies about 75,000 miles a year. Chris Reynolds is on vacation

International flights have an aura of glamour, and they are certainly a world apart from domestic flights. But there is still the chore of getting the best seats on the plane, particularly because you are going to be parked there for six to 14 hours.

On international flights, airlines typically use wide-body planes that have two aisles. Here are some strategies to help you get the most comfortable seating:

If you are flying coach, recognize that nearly all carriers use similar seats, with a tight 31 to 32 inches of legroom, or just an inch or two more space than on the narrow-body planes flown on many U.S. flights.


Try to avoid the Boeing 747 on long-haul coach flights, such as from Los Angeles to European and Asian destinations. The 747’s seats are narrow. Not only is legroom tight, but quite a few passengers get stuck with undesirable middle seats because of the 747’s typical 3-4-3 configuration, i.e., a row of three seats, an aisle, a row of four seats, an aisle, and a row of three seats.

With so many people jammed into the large 747--there are more than 300 seats in coach alone--claustrophobia and noise can become real problems.

A better choice is the smaller Boeing 767, which is often used by U.S. carriers on their European and Latin American flights. With 2-3-2 seating on the 767, there are not all those miserable middle seats like on a 747, and the 767’s seats are a tad wider. And the 767 is not an transoceanic cattle car; there are only about 160 coach seats.

Overall, the best choice for flying coach on international travel is the Boeing 777, said Ed Perkins, editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Newsletter. The 777 is currently flown by airlines such as United and British Airways. On United Airlines, the 777 coach seats are 1 1/2 inches wider than the coach seats on a new 747-400, and the 777’s legroom is a moderately comfortable 33 inches. The plane’s 2-5-2 configuration, however, creates quite a few middle seats. (Remember, airlines determine the seat configuration and legroom, not the plane’s manufacturer.)

On international flights, charter airlines can offer reasonably priced seats. But Perkins warns: “You’ve got to be cautious. Some charters jam an extra seat into each row, meaning really narrow, uncomfortable seats.”

Seat comfort changes dramatically in international business and first-class cabins.

On international flights follow this rule: The larger the plane, the better the business class and first-class cabins. Today’s international business class, which typically offers 48 to 50 inches of legroom, is similar to the international first class of 15 to 20 years ago, before airlines had “sleeper seats.” Meanwhile, today’s first class has reached new heights of comfort. On carriers such as Air France and British Airways, seats recline into beds.


But the 767, which offers decent coach seating, probably has the least desirable business- and first-class service because of a fairly cramped cabin, relatively small seats and limited legroom.

If you cannot afford an international business- or first-class ticket, use your frequent-flier mileage to escape the cramped coach cabin. On American and United, you can currently get a free round-trip business-class ticket to Europe for 75,000 miles. Or, you can upgrade most coach tickets to a confirmed business-class seat for 40,000 frequent-flier miles. (However, airlines allocate only a limited number of free and upgraded business- and first-class seats on each flight.)

If you can’t get out of coach, here are some other possibilities:

1. Try to get the bulkhead seats, which offer extra legroom because they are just behind partitions that divide different cabins.

2. Try for seats in the emergency exit rows, which offer extra legroom as a safety feature to help passengers evacuate in an emergency.

3. Avoid the last rows because of the noise and the constant jostling of passengers using the rear restrooms.

4. And avoid non-reclining rows, which are often in the row just in front of emergency exits.

When you book your flight, the airline’s telephone representative or your travel agent can identify undesirable seats on their computerized seat map.

And if you want to know more about in-flight seat comfort, read the Consumer Reports Travel Newsletter’s thorough airline seat comfort survey, published every other year. For subscriptions, call (800) 234-1970. The rate is $39 a year.