Dealing With the Big Seat Squeeze

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You'd think that, given the increasing obesity of the population, airlines would be looking at wider seat designs in economy. But that doesn't seem to be happening. In fact, seating is going the other way. When Boeing's 777s first started service, economy seats were universally installed nine-across, and those seats were the widest in the industry. Recently, however, several airlines have installed very tight 10-across seats in current 777s and specified 10-across in future deliveries. So far, the bad actors are Air France, Air New Zealand, Emirates, and KLM, but you can look for more lines to downgrade their economy seating.

Similarly, when Boeing announced the new 787 "Dreamliner," it touted roomier economy seating, at eight-across. More recently, however, many customers are apparently specifying ultra-tight nine-across. If you're on one of those, your "Dreamliner" trip is likely to be a nightmare.

Book a Wider Seat If You Can

Booking flights with wider-than-average seats can help to avoid the worst crowding problems:

  • The best seats are on the Embraer 170-195 series: They're wider than average, and in pairs only, with no middles.
  • Boeing 777s with nine-across seats are the best of the widebodies.
  • All Airbus models and Boeing 767s generally have wider seats than Boeing 737-747-757 models.

You can find seating details for any airline you're likely to fly on SeatGuru.

On a long intercontinental flight, you can virtually guarantee no encroachment problems by booking in premium economy. Seats are several inches wider than conventional economy on all lines that offer premium economy except KLM. But the extra cost of premium economy is usually very high. When Air France announced its premium product, for example, it touted "40 percent more room" than standard economy – but the fare was 100 percent more than standard economy. Not a very attractive value proposition, but typical of premium economy pricing. Fortunately, airlines often run "sales" on premium economy seats that help offset high fares. But forget those semi-premium economy cabins with extra legroom: Those seats are just as narrow as in regular economy.

What to Do in Flight

If you're caught in a squeeze, your obvious first move is to ask the flight crew to move either you or your oversize seatmate to a different seat. Chances are an attendant will honor that request if it's feasible.

But if no alternative seats are available, you just have to tough out the flight. If possible, document the problem – take a picture of the seat with your phone camera, for example – or get a statement from another passenger or two. Then, when you can, submit a formal complaint to the airline. Note that the airline failed to deliver the product you thought you bought – full and exclusive occupancy of a seat – and specify whatever compensation you think is appropriate. Don't just ask for an apology. An apology and $2 might buy you a latte. Instead, ask for a partial cash refund, a voucher, a future upgrade, frequent flyer miles, or whatever is acceptable.

If the airline stonewalls your first complaint – the most likely initial outcome – repeat your complaint and indicate your willingness to explore all avenues in search of a resolution.

Airlines will never solve this kind of problem without prodding from affected travelers. The only way to get them to move is to keep applying pressure. Do it.

Ed Perkins is a SmarterTravel contributing editor and a respected commentator on all aspects of the travel industry, including passenger comfort and rights, travel insurance, the best credit cards for travelers, and car rental. This article originally appeared on SmarterTravel.

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