Leg room, seat pitch & your 'personal space' on an aircraft explained

By John Walton, November 26 2012

How much legroom will you find when you reach your airline seat? What's this aircraft "seat pitch" business all about? And how is it measured on board the plane?

If you're a newly minted frequent flyer, or just need a refresher on what pitch is and how it works, we've got you covered.

What is seat pitch?

Seat pitch is a technical term used by airlines, and refers to the distance between the back of your seat and the back of the seat in front.

Pitch includes not only your legs but the depth of the seatback structure and cushions, plus the tray table.

That exit row seat above has plenty of room, but if you're in a regular seat (have a peek at the row behind the exit row, for example) you'll have less space.

What's the regular seat pitch in economy?

In terms of numbers, regular economy class seat pitch can vary:

  • 28 inches is the bare minimum, used on low cost carriers like Jetstar and AirAsia
  • 31 inches is the minimum for long-haul flights on full-service airlines like Qantas and British Airways
  • 34 inches is the most we've seen in regular economy, on Korean Air, Malaysia Airlines and a few others

That number is often used as a proxy for legroom -- but it's not really a direct equivalent since you need to take into account the depth of the seatback too.

Some airlines sell seats with more legroom than that for an extra fee. On smaller planes like Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 jets, these might be the front row, a bulkhead or an emergency exit row.

United Airlines also offers Economy Plus (a separate section of regular economy seats with more legroom in the economy cabin, heavily populated by frequent flyers), and Delta offers something similar in its Economy Comfort zone. 

The seat itself is important too

A thicker seat -- especially in Economy, where there's less space to play with -- means that you get less legroom. You'll usually find these aboard older aircraft.

Compare the thicker, older seat from a late 1999 plane to the seat from the brand new plane above.

But it's not just the that newer seats are thinner.

Some airlines are starting to use specially-designed slimline seats which move the seatback pocket up to eye level, have a different support structure and shave inches off even newer regular style seats.

We tried slimline seats out recently in Germany, and were impressed -- although in fairness that's because Lufthansa decided to split the difference with passengers. The airline gets more seats on the plane, and passengers get a bit more legroom.

What about business and first class?

In domestic business class or premium economy -- where the seats are recliners rather than the type that turn flat -- it's a similar situation. Measure seatback to seatback and that's your pitch.

Within Australia, Virgin Australia has the biggest recliner pitch around, at just over 60" on its Coast-to-Coast Sydney-Perth A330 planes.

The calculations are a little different in the angled lie-flat seats and fully flat beds of long-haul international business and first classes. (Qantas occasionally runs this type of seat between Sydney and Perth on Boeing 747 and Airbus A330 planes too.)

Since your feet may tuck under the seat in front of you when the seat is in its sleeping position, you'll want to check out the bed length in addition to seat pitch:

As any geometry student could tell you, the length of the bed when sloped at an angle can be greater than the pitch of the seat horizontally.

Pitch is still important at the pointy end of the plane, though: the more space there is in front of you, the easier it is for window passengers to nip out over a sleeping aisle passenger.

All sorted? Any questions? Ask away in the comments section below or fire off a tweet to @AusBT.

John Walton
John Walton

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.

TheRealBabushka

TheRealBabushka

21 Apr 2012

Total posts 3034

Is it a quiet news day John?

John Walton

John Walton

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 673

Mate, you know we're not just a news site. We carefully craft our daily mix to make sure that there's a good variety of information for everyone.

This kind of explanatory article is core to our reader offer -- and it's also useful to refer back to whenever we (or others) talk about pitch. 

sam122

sam122

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2012

Total posts 18

Those Lufthansa business seats make me cringe... at least their food is half decent!


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