Are airline seats really that tight?

Perhaps the biggest recurring complaint about air travel in the U.S., is how darned uncomfortable it is to be crammed in like sardines for the length of the flight. That aspect of air travel has lead to several recent confrontations and, with companies like Airbus seeking patents on seating that is even more Spartan, it is likely a continue to be a sore spot for some time to come.

But how tight are those seats, really?

According to, economy class seats on airliners plying domestic routes are, in the overwhelming majority of cases, between 17 and 17.5 inches wide. That’s as wide as the narrow dimensions of two sheets of copier paper (did I almost write, “typing paper”?) held side by side. 8.5 + 8.5 inches = 17 inches.

Compare that to your favorite chair. The task chair I am sitting in as I write this has a full 20 inches between armrests.

“Pitch” is another measure. Pitch is the space from one seat back to the seat back in front of it. In most airliners, domestic economy pitch ranges from 30 to 32 inches.

Of course, most airlines offer the opportunity to upgrade within economy class, though the names vary. United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) calls its upgrade EconomyPlus while American Airlines (NYSE:AAL) uses the term Main Cabin Extra and Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) calls its service Economy Comfort. JetBlue (NYSE:JBLU) offers what it calls Even More Space, while Virgin America offers Main Cabin Select.

However, while these upgraded seats offer more legroom, in most cases they do not offer additional seat width. For that, you’ll have to pay for Business or First Class passage.

Because most airlines operate more than one version of any model of aircraft it flies, and many fly several different models from different manufacturers, I am not presenting this post as a complete, comprehensive list of everything out there. In my research for this post, I looked at only narrow-body aircraft used on domestic routes, like the Airbus A319 and A320, the Boeing 737 and 757. I did not look at regional jets (RJs), nor did I look at wide-body jets or narrow-bodies jets configured for international flights.

So, how do the airlines rank?

Seating aboard Virgin America
Image courtesy Virgin America
JetBlue offers the most space to domestic economy passengers, with seats 17.8 inches to 18 inches wide, and pitch ranging from 33 to 34 inches. More legroom is available in its Even More Space section. Virgin America is a close second with 17.7 inches of seat width and 32 inches of pitch unless a passenger chooses Main Cabin Select.

United offers seats that are 18 inches wide on some of its A319s and A320s but the pitch is still a fairly tight 31 inches. On its 737s, seat are 17.2 and 17.3 inches wide, also with 31 inches of pitch. More legroom is available in its EconomyPlus seats.

American also offers domestic economy seats that are 18 inches wide on the A321 Transcon configuration, 17.8 inches wide on its 767-200, and 17.7 inches wide on its A319. That aircraft, however, has the shortest pitch, at 30 inches. Mostly, pitch on American economy is between 31 and 32 inches, except for its Main Cabin Extra seats, which offer additional legroom.

Seating aboard Alaska
Photo courtesy Alaska Airlines
Tied for tightest are the 737s operated by Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) and Southwest (NYSE:LUV). Southwest flies 737s exclusively and Alaska almost exclusively. In both cases, seats are 17 inches wide, among the narrowest in the industry. Pitch on Alaska’s planes is consistently 32 inches, while Southwest ranges from 31 to 33 inches.

Neither airline offers expanded economy seating. Passengers wanting more room on Alaska will need to book First Class passage, while Southwest offers only a single class.

What does it all mean?

In general, it means airlines have become pretty adept in maximizing the space available, but that often comes as the expense of their passengers’ comfort, as aircraft manufacturer Airbus recently acknowledged in its patent application for a new type of airline seat.

What it means to the traveling public depends on the individual. I’m a bit over 6 feet tall and a bit over 190 pounds. Accordingly, a seat 17.2 inches wide is pretty tight and 31 inches of pitch is about the least I can tolerate. Others who are of smaller stature could find the space adequate while those of great height and greater girth will be more cramped.

Size does matter, and may well be worth considering the size of the seat when choosing the airline you’ll take on your next trip.

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