How to find international flights with the best economy seating

By John Walton, November 2 2011
How to find international flights with the best economy seating

While we'd all like to jet about in business class, many companies insist that business travellers fly in economy -- even on international flights from, say, Australia to Asia or the US.

With a flying time of 8-12 hours on each leg -- and more if you've got a connecting flight -- it pays to try to get extra legroom, along with taking a few steps to survive a red-eye night flight.

But there's one extra measure you can take when planning your schedule to make that flight more bearable (other than whipping out the credit card and upgrading yourself). The secret? Pick a plane that's 'economy-friendly'.

What's in a plane?

International routes from Australia are big business, so airlines use their biggest aircraft. From Boeing's jumbo 747 to Airbus A380 superjumbos, the 'Kangaroo Route' sees them all.

However, larger planes mean more seats in each row, which means more people to clamber over (or clambering over you) to get to the aisle -- and a higher likelihood of ending up in a middle seat yourself.

Plus, at your destination, it takes longer to get off the plane -- and there are inevitably more people trying to go through customs and immigration at the same time.

So how do you get yourself on a smaller, more comfortable plane? Here's where it gets a little technical, but don't panic -- we'll demystify the frightening 'frequent flyer' jargon as we go.

It's all about the seat layout

Seat layout is the way in which the seats are grouped within each row, and is the key difference in economy between smaller and larger planes.

For example, if a plane has a 3-4-3 seat layout, that means there are three seats next to the left hand window, then an aisle, then four seats in the middle of the plane, then another aisle, then three more seats by the right hand window. 

Here's what that looks like for a large plane in a 3-4-3 layout:

Smaller planes lose one, two, or even three seats per row, meaning that the cabin feels less cramped and and has fewer people to climb across.

Which planes have the best seat layout? 

Boeing 747 

The original jumbo jet comes in a 3-4-3 seat layout downstairs (which is mainly Economy). So, if you're in a window seat, you'll have to clamber over two people to get out for a stretch, a drink or to visit the lavatory. And with four middle seats in each row, you're more likely to find yourself in a middle seat on the plane.

Airbus A380

The superjumbo flies in a variety of configurations. Qantas and Emirates have economy downstairs in a 3-4-3 layout. Singapore Airlines' A380s have economy both downstairs (in 3-4-3, rows 31-63) and upstairs (in 2-4-2, rows 71-83, although the newest SQ A380s have business class all the way along the top deck. If you're on one of the earlier model SQ A380s, pick upstairs for economy.

Boeing 777

This popular long-range workhorse runs in either a usual 3-3-3 layout, a less frequently seen 2-5-2 option, or the very cramped high-density 3-4-3 configuration. (That's where airlines put in extra narrow seats and reduce the width of the aisles to squeeze in an extra seat in each row.) 

Frequent business travellers avoid the 3-4-3 layout wherever possible. Fortunately, only Emirates and Air New Zealand (on its newest 777-300ER) planes have 3-4-3 on flights to Australia.

The 3-3-3 layout is generally better than 2-5-2 (nobody wants to be stuck in the very middle seat), although a window or aisle seat next to the window in a 2-5-2 layout is great.

Airbus A330 & A340

The standard economy layout is 2-4-2 (the only exception to this is low-cost AirAsia X, which squeezes another seat into each row). So not only do people at the window have fewer passengers to clamber over, there's a lower likelihood of finding yourself in a middle seat -- the only ones are in the very middle of the four-seat set in the middle of the cabin.

Boeing 767

This is better yet: the 2-3-2 economy config means there's only one middle seat in each row. That's a great option for a long-distance flight. The only downside is that few airlines fly them long-distance from Australia.

How to find out which plane you'll be flying on

When you're choosing flights, the aircraft type will be displayed somewhere near the flight times.

Sometimes, the aircraft type is helpfully in full -- like in the example above.

Often, though, it will be in a three-digit aircraft code, which isn't particularly helpful.

The trick is to look at the first two numbers in the aircraft code. For example, just about anybody can figure out that "747" means a Boeing 747. But "77W"? That's a particular type of Boeing 777. Similarly, "346" is an Airbus A340.

Here's a fuller list of codes in case you need it, with the plane followed by the code:

  • Airbus A380 = 380, 388
  • Boeing 747 = 747, 744
  • Boeing 777 = 777, 77L, 77W, 773, 772
  • Airbus A330 = 330, 332, 333, 33E, 33B
  • Airbus A340 = 340, 342, 343, 345, 346
  • Boeing 767 = 767, 762, 763, 764
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.

03 Mar 2011

Total posts 1

I disagree with your comparison of the A380 V 747.  The A380 has wider seats, larger overhead bins and much quieter esp. ahead of the engines.  There is much more room around the doorways where I suggest your readers should aim for.

16 May 2011

Total posts 11

Dont forget that some of the 747's have 3-4 rows at the back of economy that go from 3 to 2 seats on each side, so A & C etc.  These are handy if you dont mind the back of the bus, and are travelling with one other person. If travelling alone, there's a good chance the seat next to you will be vacant.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

I tend to find you have a better chance of an empty seat next to you in the very last few 3-set rows, before it narrows to 2.

While the window is good in the 2-seat rows (since you have all that elbow room and space to store your stuff), the aisles in those rows are also good (since you have fewer people climbing over you to get out).

On an economy A380 flight to Singapore last week, I actually had the entire three-seat row to myself -- like my own personal Air NZ Skycouch! Carry-on rollaboard in the aisle legroom with a couple of blankets on top and that's better than Premium Economy for me.


15 Apr 2011

Total posts 580

QF pax should also be careful flying to Paris - the AF codeshare flight from SIN is a 77W with 3-4-3... There are also a few airlines without PTV's in Y (TG springs to mind outside of their Airbii), and of course Air Asia X out of MEL and OOL with 3-3-3 in their A330s :/

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