Economy's real squeeze? It's elbow room, not leg room

By John Walton, December 4 2012
Economy's real squeeze? It's elbow room, not leg room

When travellers talk seats, especially in economy class, the conversation inevitably turns to legroom and gripes about how we're seeing less and less of it these days.

But as frequent flyers can attest, the real squeeze these days isn't at your knees, it's at your elbows.

The 'legroom is disappearing' myth

Don't fall for the line that as airlines add extra rows of seats, legroom gets the chop. It's not always so.

The latest airline seats are getting slimmer due to trends in design, materials and construction. And thinner seats can mean you actually have more room for your knees.

That's because the standard "seat pitch" measurement is from one point on the seat in your row to the same point on the seat in front. This it includes your seatback, tray table and magazine pocket.

Naturally, if those all get thinner you'll see an increase in legroom -- provided the airline doesn't use this opportunity to cram another row or two of seats onto the plane, as US carrier Southwest recently did.

Even so, the result is simply to maintain the same amount of legroom rather than stealing a precious inch of space from each passenger.

Have a look at Lufthansa's newest Recaro slimline seating (which AusBT reviewed and liked) on the left, compared with a seat from a decade ago on the right:

The extra space cut out at knee height delivers more legroom -- as long as the airline doesn't try to squash in more seats, as Qantas did recently with its refitted regional QantasLink Boeing 717 jets.

The downsides? The bit of the seat you're actually sitting on often doesn't stretch as far along your thighs as older versions. And, despite advanced materials and engineering, the padding is on the firm side. But we'll take extra legroom every time.

Seat width is where the real squeeze is happening

Where economy class passengers are now feeling the pinch is in elbow room.

Sure, low-cost airlines like Jetstar, Tiger and AirAsia have less legroom than full-service airlines like Virgin Australia and Qantas. 

But unless you're a religious scrutiniser of online seat maps, you might not spot that some airlines -- even the expensive ones on your business travel agenda -- are cramming one extra passenger in every row on some of their larger planes.

British Airways was the original culprit on its leisure routes, adding an extra seat in every row on its Boeing 777 planes and turning a nine-abreast 3-3-3 cabin layout into a ten-abreast 3-4-3 configuration.

 . Boeing

The extra space to fit a tenth seat came from chopping an inch and a half from each seat -- now some of the narrowest in the world, down from 18.5 inches -- and the aisles.

Fed up of sitting in an aisle seeat and being bumped into as people move around? It's even worse in a 3-4-3 layout.

Take a look at these two pictures of Boeing 777 economy class to see how things have shifted. Here's Etihad's old economy seating before they went 3-4-3:

 . Konstantin von Wedelstaedt
Konstantin von Wedelstaedt

Note the width of the aisle, how the centre set of seats line up with the bulkhead wall in front and the centre bins, and how the seats on the left line up with the overhead lighting.

Then compare it to Air New Zealand's 3-4-3 layout:

 . Phillip Capper
Phillip Capper

In the BA case, stiffly worded British complaints forced a swift about-turn, but the floodgates were open for even respected "full service" airlines like Air France, Air New Zealand, American Airlines, Emirates, Etihad and KLM to run their longest Boeing 777 flights with the ultra-tight 3-4-3 economy seating.

Japanese airlines ANA and JAL restrict the tighter seating to their domestic routes, with JAL's seating design team firmly quashing any suggestion that long-haul passengers should be squashed into 3-4-3 when Australian Business Traveller visited the airline's Tokyo workshops in October.

Cathay Pacific's Head of Product similarly dismissed the possibility of a 3-4-3 layout for the Hong Kong carrier earlier this year.

It's not just a Boeing 777 problem

If you're thinking to aim for Airbus seats instead, that's not a bad idea overall.

In economy, Airbus A320 seats tend to be an inch or more wider than the Boeing 737 competition, as do Airbus A380 seats when you compare them with Boeing 747s.

But there's seat creep on the European jets too.

AirAsia X, for example, has nine-abreast 3-3-3 seating on its Airbus A330s, where every other airline (including Qantas, Virgin Australia and even Jetstar) have eight-abreast 2-4-2.

That's a reduction of over an inch of seat width for every passenger on AirAsia X.

And Airbus' cabin interiors marketing chief Zuzana Hrnkova admitted to Australian Business Traveller that the A380 superjumbo could get into the act too, with a terrifying 3-5-3 economy layout a possibility for low-cost carriers buying the A380.

Anyone old and well-travelled enough to have experienced the middle seat on a 2-5-2 layout on a Douglas DC-10 plane or on earlier models of the Boeing 777 will wince at the thought.

Don't get any ideas, airlines: Australian Business Traveller is watching you...

For more analysis and all the latest you need to know about business travel, follow us on Twitter: we're @AusBT.

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.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Mar 2012

Total posts 211

this is one of the worst things about the QF/EK tie up. Having to spend the longest part of a flight to Europe in the ridiculously uncomfortable 777 economy seating between Perth & Dubai (before they start A380 flights anyway). Emirates may have good seats in the front but they having shocking seats down the back in B777 and A330's.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

In fairness to Emirates, their ten-across does at least come with some extra legroom compared with other airlines. I had to cut that detail from what was already a fairly long story, but I'm keen to highlight it for completeness.

(Can't wait for the A380 to hit Perth — that'll be a real gamechanger.)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Mar 2012

Total posts 211

true there is a little extra legroom, however I would prefer a little extra shoulder room, especially with a wider person sitting next to me. Hate to have to lean away from the person next to you as you can't sit straight sometimes without rubbing shoulders. In that case ity's either lean toward the aisle and get bumped or sit straight and get leaned on.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Oh, me too, absolutely — that's one of the reasons I'm such a fan of window seats down the back of the plane in long-haul economy. A window to lean on, and a better chance of no seatmate. (I'll often luck out and have an entire row to myself!)

American 777-200 is in a 2-5-2 layout in economy (main cabin in AA lingo) i.e. 9 across.

American 777-300 ER (with updated cabin product) is configured with a 3-3-3 in Main Cabin Extra (i.e. 9 across) and 3-4-3 in Main Cabin (i.e. 10 across).

For the uninitiated, Main Cabin Extra is NOT Premium Economy. It is sold as part of the economy class inventory (Y,B,V,S etc etc). Main Cabin Extra offers extra leg room and standard 9 across seating (as opposed to the more crammed 10 across).

Main Cabin Extra is is allocated free of charge to OW Elite members and passengers wishing to pay more to secure a more "comfortable" economy ride.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Yes, absolutely — the upcoming AA 777-300ER is the one that'll have the 3-4-3 seating in regular economy, while the 777-200 (and the 777-300ER extra-legroom-economy, which covered recently) is nine-abreast in economy, unless there are refits on the way.

Again, little details like this are the kind of thing that often get cut out to balance length with completeness.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 784

Reminds me of TWA L-1011s... remember being stuck in the middle of 5 seats years ago STL-LAX. Third worst flight ever. 

No matter how any airline sells is (or conveinently doesn't mention it) 10 across is just wrong. Hooray for SQ, and VA for keeping Y reasonable. 

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

I remember heading New York to Geneva on Swissair's DC-10s, and my parents insisting on us being seated down the back of economy one night with an empty flight. That 2-5-2 layout was great for lying fully flat, decades before business class let you do the same!

05 Jun 2012

Total posts 5

Well if you think this through, isn't being in the window seat in a 10 or heck 11 abreast aircraft being the same as being in the middle seat of a 5 seat block? I mean the only difference really is a window which you can lean on i suppose.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Sure, in terms of people to climb over — but I'm not sure I'd dismiss the benefits of having a window seat quite as offhandedly. I'll take yours if you don't want it... ;)

20 Jul 2011

Total posts 73

Fully agree.  I'm 6 foot but my legs have convenient hinges that allow them to tuck under the seat in front.  As long as the pitch is not too ridiculous I'll be comfortable.  But I really notice a lack of space across my shoulders.  Would far prefer to be in a 30 inch A320 than a 32 inch 737. 

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Interesting you should say that: Airbus cabin guru Zuzana Hrnkova told me her research says one inch of seat width is worth 1.6 inches of legroom. That squares with my call too.

23 Dec 2011

Total posts 6

EVA Air has 9-abreast (3-3-3) seating in economy class on their 777s, as well as excellent service and cheap fares!

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Another reason to follow my mantra: always check the seat map!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

04 Dec 2012

Total posts 38

John, I think another important thing to note is that while on the 777s it's a 'trend' and some legacy carriers are still scoffing at it, these very same carriers on 787s are putting on a 9 abreast 3-3-3 product that is the same seat width as a 3-4-3 on a 777, and without any bad press. I guess people are more vocal when its a reconfiguration of what we are used to, but on a fresh product the airlines are getting away with it because of the new factor? As far as I know, JAL and ANA have been the only two carriers who have taken the 787 with Boeing's intended 2-4-2 layout. It scares me to think with so many 787 orders out there that the 17in width will soon become the norm in Y all across the board..

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Yes, absolutely, and that's something we have our eyes firmly on as 787 layouts are released and start heading in our direction.

We've yet to fly 3-3-3 on a 787 in economy -- but you're not wrong that it's a bad pick by airlines from the passenger perspective.

Air Canada - Aeroplan

06 Dec 2012

Total posts 2

I'm not sure if I agree with the statement, "And, despite advanced materials and engineering, the padding is on the firm side. But we'll take extra legroom every time."  On long haul flights, I prefer plush seats as my bony buns get awefully sore after sitting on the thin and firm seats.  I don't like the fact that airlines are using the thin and firm seats on long haul flights. 

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Welcome to AusBT, Paul!

I was referring mainly to the padding for backs rather than bums — apart from overall aircraft weight, there's no real justification for airlines to skimp on the stuffing for the bit of the seat you actually sit on.

Air Canada - Aeroplan

06 Dec 2012

Total posts 2

That is true.  Unfortunately, the seats I've sat on have skimped on the stuffing, probably to reduce the overall weight of the aircraft.  I'm not sure if airlines do any human comfort testing in a cabin demonstrator before deploying any cabin products.  That is something I hope to change in the future.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Oh, I know that they do — but you're entirely right to raise questions about whether this is costcutting gone painfully far or more a failure to take into account testing feedback.

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