Do bulkhead seats really give you extra legroom on a plane?

By John Walton, August 24 2012
Do bulkhead seats really give you extra legroom on a plane?

Many business travellers swear by bulkhead seats -- the ones at the very front of the cabin, behind a dividing wall (in aviation terms, that's called a bulkhead) -- as they can deliver extra legroom.

But others swear at them, especially taller travellers who prefer to be able to tuck their feet further under a seat in front of them rather than have extra room at the knees.

The situation is especially tricky in business class, where 180-degree fully flat beds and angled lie-flat  seats all mean that the situation isn't clear-cut when picking a seat.

So which is better? Australian Business Traveller is here -- in the latest of our series of how-to articles and primer guides -- to help you figure out which you'd prefer.

Bulkheads: the pros and cons

The best thing about the bulkhead is that nobody's leaning back into your space.

That gives you the feel of more room, the ability to use a laptop to get some work done while having the screen pointed at a comfortable angle, more room from hip to knee and the chance for a window or middle seat passenger to pop out without the person in the aisle seat necessarily having to get up.

And if there's entertainment on board, you may well have an armrest-mounted entertainment screen (which is also very useful for jury-rigging your iPad so you don't have to hold it in place).

In a regular seat, you can tuck your feet under the seat in front of you. In a bulkhead, that space isn't usually there.
In a regular seat, you can tuck your feet under the seat in front of you. In a bulkhead, that space isn't usually there.

However, with no "under the seat in front of you" space, bulkhead seats -- especially in domestic business and international premium economy -- can sometimes feel like they have less legroom if you want to stretch out.

(Some airlines have tried to fix this with a cutout section carved from the bulkhead at foot level so you can still get your feet through.)

In addition, that armrest-mounted entertainment screen and tray table may well mean a reduction of a couple of centimetres of seat width.

The end result? Better for knee room and laptop space, but for actual room to put your legs or seat width you may be better off in another spot.

But what about in business class?

Bulkheads get a bit more complicated in business class, where you might find a 180-degree fully flat bed, angled lie-flat seat or a regular recliner seat that's just larger and more comfy than Economy.

(Don't know your flat from your lie-flat? We cover the basics in our article on the lie-flat lie.)

Recliner-style seats

For that larger recliner, much of the same situation applies as in economy: you'll get all the benefits of nobody reclining back into you (easier to get out, more space) but airlines don't tend to reduce legroom as much as in the cheap seats.

So we'd usually pick a bulkhead on domestic business class or international premium economy.

Angled lie-flat seats

In angled lie-flat seats (like Qantas' first generation Skybed, or many Asian airlines' business class seats) the bulkhead is a great pick.

That's because your feet normally tuck under the head of the passenger in front of you.

With no passenger there, you'll usually have that space free to stretch out or store your carry-on during the flight, and it makes it a lot easier for window passengers to nip out into the aisle.

So yes -- go for the bulkhead in a lie-flat seat.

180-degree fully flat beds

If you're in long-haul business class with a fully flat bed that converts to 180 degrees, the bulkhead is less desirable. Since the space between these seats is dictated by the length of the bed (usually over six feet), there's no extra space to be gained here.

Since everyone's feet tuck into a cubby in the same way on Emirates' A380, there's no legroom reason to pick the bulkhead.
Since everyone's feet tuck into a cubby in the same way on Emirates' A380, there's no legroom reason to pick the bulkhead.

In fact, if you're a big fan of in-flight entertainment, it can be better to be in the bulkhead, since your individual screen is likely to be in your armrest rather than at the foot of the bed. Garuda Indonesia's fully flat beds are a good example of this.

Great bulkhead seats in fully flat business class also include Singapore Airlines' flat-bed A380 and Boeing 777-300ER seats -- your feet don't just have to be popped into that little cubbyhole -- and British Airways' Club World, where if you pick your seats right then window passengers don't need to scramble over the aisle seat's footrest to get out.

Your say...

What do you reckon: to bulkhead or not to bulkhead? That's our question to you, our readers. Share your answers in a comment below -- if you dare to reveal your secrets to other business travellers!

New to the world of frequent flying or need a refresher on some of the more in-depth aspects? We've got you covered:

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John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

I generally avoid bulkhead regardless of class of travel. Economy bulkhead actually not too bad - Yes, there is less room to stretch your feet out but you can stick your feet up on the bulkhead which you can't do if it is a seat in front.

Definitely in Business I avoid bulkhead - there is no reason for it if you've got the extra space in J anyway!

13 Feb 2011

Total posts 31

So as to avoid babies I avoid bulkheads at all costs!


04 Nov 2010

Total posts 670

Some bulkhead rows are great and some lousy, even in the same aircraft. I tried a bulkhead in Cathay Pacific economy a few months ago, have heard awful things about the CX economy seats (and that turned out to be true, but was on a budget and couldn't get business class) so figured at least I coud get more legroom to slouch forward and stretch out my legs more if I was in the bulkhead row.

SeatGuru showed a very generous bulkhead area and said the seat was good for extra room but it turns out the bulkhead is really very close to the seat, and you actually have LESS legroom, because you can't put your feet under the seat inf ront of you, so you have to sit with your legs crossed the whole way. What a terrible eight hours that was!

24 Aug 2012

Total posts 3

I have just completed a return SYD-LON and managed to get bulkhead in economy on 3 of the 4 legs (2 on Cathay and 1 on Emirates).  All of these were great options as we were able to put our wheel on case on the ground during flight to make a great foot rest.  The new economy seats on Cathay were excellent with a lot of extra leg space on the bulkhead.  Made the journey in economy very comfortable.


10 Apr 2012

Total posts 59

No.I avoid the Bulkheads at all costs.Sometimes I have had the misfortune of being seated near them but depending on the flight and airline you can have a family with good kids/babies or they can be the one from hell.

20 Jul 2011

Total posts 73

I hate bulkheads.  Nothing worse than not  being able to extend your knees past about 100 degrees for an entire flight.

11 Mar 2012

Total posts 181

On some QF 737s, there is a little indent in the wall at the foot level in business, but only 01D/F seats have it, making them THE BEST business class seats in the cabin. I would pick that any day over A/C. If D/F are taken I usually pick third row A/C so I could recline comfortably.

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