Feel cramped in an airline coach seat? You should, and this flight attendant tells you why

A narrow aisle on an aircraft means feet, shoulders and heads are an “ouch” waiting to happen and also means flight attendants have to step lightly.
(Catharine Hamm/Los Angeles Times)

Most airline passengers (with the possible exception of small children) complain that coach, or main cabin, airline seats are cramped and uncomfortable. As a flight attendant and frequent passenger, I agree.

In the never-ending quest to jam more and more passengers onto airplanes — thus increasing revenue — airlines have added seats in places where space seemed nonexistent.

Consider the Boeing 737. Two decades ago, when I first worked a sparkling new 737, it seemed spacious and relatively comfortable. The plane boasted 16 seats in business class and 132 seats in the main cabin.

The sizable aft galley allowed room for carts to move easily in and out. More carts could be stowed in the storage spaces between the galley and the two aft lavatories.


Waiting passengers had room to stand at the aft end of the aisle (between the storage spaces) and wait their turn for the lavatory without hovering over people seated in the last rows.

A few years later, my airline reconfigured the Boeing 737, adding two rows in main cabin. The plane maintained 16 business-class seats but now included 144 in the main cabin.

To make room for the extra rows, the storage spaces were eliminated between the galley and the lavatories. Now, the lavatory doors open mere inches from the galley, prompting many crew members to carry canisters of high-powered air freshener for use in the lavs.

To make matters worse, the galley has been reduced by nearly half.


Before the beverage service, we wiggle the cart out of the galley stowage space and park it in the aisle, temporarily blocking the two aft lavatories as we load drinks, snacks, etc.

It’s a tight squeeze for everyone, especially when the first-class passengers rise from their seats to use the lavatories, which are blocked by the beverage cart.

As an addition to our Boeing 737 fleet, the airline introduced a newly configured version. Business class continues to enjoy 16 seats. But the main cabin, which originally had 132 seats and was reshaped to accommodate 144, now contains 156 seats.

Less space has a palpable effect on everyone aboard. Thanks to shrunken seats and narrowed aisles, passengers sitting in aisle seats tend to lean outward for comfort.


Feet, shoulders and heads dangle in the aisle, creating a mine field of appendages through which passengers and crew must navigate.

As a result, there’s been an uptick in passenger complaints about flight attendants who have rolled a 200-pound beverage cart over an exposed toe or banged into a sleeping person’s head.

More common are the garden-variety lumps and bumps doled out by anyone walking up and down the aisle. It is virtually impossible for a medium-sized person to move down an aisle without touching some part of a seated person’s body — even on wide-body aircraft.

Recently, I worked a double-aisle Boeing 777 configured with 37 seats in business and 252 in the main cabin. (Before reconfiguration, this same aircraft accommodated 16 in the now-defunct first-class section, 37 in business and 194 in the main cabin.) Both aisles have been narrowed considerably to accommodate extra seats.


It was a late-night international flight, and after the dinner service, most passengers dozed. The cabin was dark, except for a few flickering entertainment monitors. I tiptoed through the darkness, stepping over sprawling legs, dodging a thrust shoulder, avoiding wayward knees, scooting past several sleeping heads that jutted out over the armrest and into the aisle.

I was careful, ninja-like even. I moved through the aisle like a cat burglar on eggshells. Many times in the past I had made the mistake of stepping on someone’s foot — even when said foot moved into previously unoccupied floor space a nanosecond before my size 11s came down.

I’ve been cursed at and derided. Glared at and scoffed at. My sincere apologies typically fall on deaf ears because most people don’t enjoy being stepped on by a flight attendant (or anyone else).

Before I made it to business class on this particular flight, a main-cabin passenger thrust her elbow into the aisle at the precise moment I reached her row.


Her razor-sharp elbow hit me below the waist, in spot that … well, you get the picture. The impact was sharp, painful, debilitating. I gasped. She giggled.

I limped away and down the narrowest of airplane aisles, then sought refuge in the business-class galley.

At that moment more than ever, the downsizing of cabin space proved truly hurtful in a way I just never imagined it could.