Why you don’t necessarily have to spend hundreds to fly comfortably

Here’s how to fly more comfortably without having to pay hundreds extra.


Question: I am 6 feet, 5 inches tall. Could you please give me a few tips on obtaining maximum legroom without having to pay for a first-class seat? A little extra for exit seating is OK.

Stu Lovett


Answer: Among the keys to comfortable airline seating are your femur and Spirit Airlines. Yes, you did just read that your thighbone and the most hated airline in America could be keys to your comfort.

To explain, I turned to Matthew Nicholls, sales director for Aerofoam Industries of Lake Elsinore, and Seth Kaplan, editor and managing partner of Airline Weekly.


You can buy a seat with more legroom, but before you lay out the cash, listen to Nicholls, who describes Aerofoam Industries as the “manufacturer of basically the human interface parts that go on an aircraft seat.” In his work, he has studied human anatomy and how to fit it into the seats on the flying tube.

His solution to a better flying experience has two parts: First is seat pitch, the distance from one point on your seat to the exact point on the back of the seat in front of you.

The pitch in economy can be as tight as 28 inches (on some Spirit aircraft, but there’s a surprise about that) and as generous as 41 inches (some seats on JetBlue).

For Lovett, Nicholls suggested selecting an aircraft with a pitch of 31 to 32 inches of space. You can find information on seat pitch on, which does a great job of cataloging aircraft dimensions.

In a man as tall as Lovett, the length of the femur makes up a little more than a quarter of the body height. In fact, that’s true of about 95% of men, Nicholls said. In a man who is 77 inches tall, as Lovett is, that means the femur is about 19 inches.

Subtract a couple of inches for the cushion that supports your back and two more inches for how much you’re pushed forward by that seatback cushion.


Add a bit for the “interference” by the seat in front of you (what’s stuffed in the seat pocket, the angle of the seat in front of you) and 28 inches is Cramp City. Thirty-two inches isn’t the wide-open spaces of Montana, but it’s better.

So why do you still feel uncomfortable on a plane, no matter how tall you are?

Part 2 of the Nicholls solution is seat height. “What will happen as you sit on the seat is that your knees will rise up above the bottom of the seat and you’ll look like a spider,” Nicholls said, explaining that the aircraft seat isn’t tall enough to support your body comfortably.

“This puts stress on the knee joint as the muscles and tendons can’t sit in a relaxed position,” he said.

“Muscles don’t like to stay in a state of tension. Lactic acid occurs, and it brings on pain and fatigue.”

The solution is not necessarily spending hundreds, maybe thousands, more for business class but rather using a cushion you tote with you that lifts you and closes that gap at the back of your legs. A cushion also can alleviate stress on the points of contact — your coccyx and the points under both hips.

Memory foam is your friend here; there’s even a memory foam pillow that will inflate or deflate depending on your needs. When you’re looking for such a cushion, be mindful that seat width could be an issue. (You can find that measurement also on


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If you’re tempted to pay extra for the legroom in the exit row, Nicholls suggests you refrain. Those seats tend to be lower, and your body will suffer more fatigue.

Kaplan of Airline Weekly also thinks that seat width can figure into the fatigue factor. A seat that’s 17 ½ inches wide means you’re going to be really chummy with your fellow passengers.

Kaplan found his bliss on a Spirit Airlines flight in what it calls its Big Front Seats. It was a seat upgrade — these are old first-class seats that are now configured for one-class service — but it was, he said, worth every nickel on a flight from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Las Vegas on an airline that tends to nickel and dime its passengers.

A seat on Southwest or JetBlue would have cost him $475. On Spirit, the base fare was $226 plus $60 in bag fees. The upgrade to a wider seat with 36 inches of pitch cost $198, making his total $484.

The extra $9 brought him several solid hours of rest, he said, and although he didn’t have in-flight entertainment, he found the extra ZZZs all the entertainment he needed.


And if you can’t buy the wider seats on a Spirit flight? A little math, a little perusing of SeatGuru and who knows? You just might rest easier.

Have a travel dilemma? Write to We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.


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