The Travel Advisor: Surviving the ever-shrinking size of airline seats

Most of us of normal height and girth who fly in economy class can attest to the discomfort caused by squeezing into a narrow seat with the seat ahead of us leaning into our tray.

A Flight (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
A Flight
(photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)
If I were to ask the average person, “What is pitch?” I’d get a multitude of answers. For me, pitch is the distance between successive points or lines, and seat pitch refers to the space between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it.
For my mother, however, with her musical background, it would mean the quality of sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it, or more simply, the degree of highness or lowness of a tone.
My dad, no doubt reminiscing on the cars he once drove, would opine that a car engine seems to change pitch downward as another vehicle passes my mom’s car.
My musical cousin would immediately relate to the musical aspect. He was adamant when strumming that his guitars were always tuned to the correct pitch and that his singer’s voice rose in pitch along with his music.
My cousin, who fancied himself a more-than-adequate baseball player, still laser-focused on his beleaguered Dodgers, would state that a pitch is nothing more than the legal delivery of a player, whereas my South African father-in-law would speak in hallowed tones of a cricket pitch.
My nephew, who believes in flipping houses will be his path to riches, would immediately speak about gradients and slope, noting that the pitch of the roof should be checked when buying a house.
My older sister, who believe exercise is her vocation, is more accustomed to the pitch created when she ups her elliptical to a steep climb.
My son, watching the Lakers last season, would exhort loudly when his frustration with bad plays reached such a pitch.
My daughter, who does not suffer fools lightly, has been known to rouse herself to a pitch of indignation.
My usage of the word is more esoteric and definitely of a technical matter.
FOR MANY carriers, the pitch in economy class is 30 to 32 inches (74 to 81 cm). More seat pitch can mean more legroom, but legroom is also affected by the thickness of the seat back. It was only a few years ago that the average distance between seat backs was 35 inches. Once the US Congress deregulated the airline industry, seat pitch as well as seat width began to shrink.
Let’s be very clear, airlines may take the padding out of the seats, may squeeze in more seats, but playing with the seat pitch should be considered by every flier of normal height a strong factor in choosing the airline.
In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the safety of the flying public. The FAA is a national authority with powers to regulate all aspects of civil aviation. These include the construction and operation of airports, air traffic management and the certification of personnel and aircraft. In addition, their mandate extends to regulating civil aviation to promote transportation.
Founded by Kate Hanni in Texas, is an American not-for-profit organization that supports legislation protecting the rights of airline passengers, improving visibility in the reporting of tarmac delays by commercial airlines, and distance between the rows of airline seats. It is the biggest non-profit consumer organization in North America representing passengers of commercial airlines.
As airlines continue to downsize their seats, thus cutting out normal legroom, they challenged the FAA in court. Realizing that the FAA cared little about the comfort of passengers, it tried a unique approach: The tighter seating with larger passengers could prevent evacuations within the goal of 90 seconds thus resulting in a safety violation. Their challenge said that by allowing airlines and manufacturers to squeeze more passengers onto flights, a safety risk was created. As seating got more cramped, the group argued there was a risk for evacuations and a health risk for passengers who could develop deep-vein thrombosis.
Basic logic would have to concur with their arguments. Most of us of normal height and girth who fly in economy class can attest to the discomfort caused by squeezing into a narrow seat with the seat ahead of us leaning into our tray.
Planes may not be not the easiest places to hit your daily step count, but it’s important to try: Immobile legs pose a health threat, even to fit travelers. When you’re crammed into a tiny airplane seat, your body has a hard time pumping blood from your legs back to your heart to keep it circulating. Doctors as well as flight attendants encourage passengers to physically move around on flights, ideally getting up to stretch.
The FAA in response to the lawsuit said it doesn’t need to regulate airline seating because evacuation tests prove there is enough room to maneuver. They were adamant that there was no evidence that seat dimensions hamper the speed of passenger evacuation. Poppycock, in my humble opinion.
The FAA is steadfast that the key to a brisk evacuation is the sequence. The plane comes to a halt, flight attendants determine that exits are safe, deploy slides and passengers remove seat belts. The FAA also said there is no evidence that the smaller distance between rows would increase human panic as the flyers’ rights organization maintained.
According to my pundit of pitch,, there is a sizable difference in airlines that fly to and from Tel Aviv.
Ryan Air is the stingiest, with a 30-inch pitch, whereas Royal Jordanian aircraft come with a 34-inch pitch. Those airlines that fly nonstop to North America – Air Canada, El Al, Delta and United – all have a 32-inch pitch. To the Far East, both Cathay Pacific and Hainan have shaved off an inch, hoping that a 31-inch pitch will not be felt when their onboard service is so good.
Sadly, in a recent passenger review of the top 10 economy airlines, the only airline that flies to Ben-Gurion Airport is Korean Air.
USE THIS when flying in the Far East for a guide to the best seating:
1. Asiana Airlines
2. Japan Airlines
3. Korean Air
4. Singapore Airlines
5. Thai Airways
6. Qatar Airways
7. ANA All Nippon Airways
8. Etihad Airways
9. Garuda Indonesia
10. EVA Air
For those who are not eligible; those who elect not to pay to sit in the economy plus seats – increasing the pitch an additional five inches – or those who are fortunate enough to eschew economy class completely and choose business or first class, let me offer some tips gleaned from thousands of passengers
• Sit by the wings
Large aircraft fly at a high altitude. If you sit closer to the center, over the plane’s wings, you will be less affected by the aircraft’s struggle against the elements. Pilots will tell you that being closer to the center of the plane’s mass as forces such of lift, torque, wind, gravity, drag and thrust act upon it will mean you’ll be well-placed for a smooth ride.
• Strategize for sleep
In order to attempt sleep, most of us seek quiet. And on an aircraft that search means you want to avoid the engines. That means a front row seat is best, or first or business class. But if that’s not an option, you should grab a seat in the aisle or next to the window, but far away from the lavatories.
The best spot for sleeping is probably toward the middle of your cabin, away from the noise of toilets and the flight attendants who congregate in the galley.
• Stretch those long legs
Though you won’t be able to store your items in front of you, the seats by the bulkhead, with its dividing walls or curtains, are the best for stretching out. Using the Seat Guru site, make sure you don’t mistakenly choose a seat with a limited recline.
Quick tip: El Al, which every two months is adding a Boeing 787 Dreamliner to their fleet, touts Row 30, which has extra legroom. It also has limited recline, as it’s against the wall of the lavatories. The proximity to both the galley and the lavatory could prove bothersome. Flyer beware.
• Get off quickly
Well, you probably guessed that being close to the front is the best way to get the heck off a plane fast. Usually, a plane’s exit is on the left-hand side from the front, though some aircraft utilize back exits.
So now we know: Have plane seats shrunk? Of course they have – packing us in like sardines has become the norm. Seats are shrinking, they are being squeezed closer together, and airlines are packing more of us into the same space. So what’s the solution?
You could lessen the nightmare by opting for an airline that offers more. Seat Guru’s comprehensive website lists the best and worst performers for both short-haul and long-haul flights.
You could also fork out for premium economy. Ask when you check in at the airport. Upgrades are often available for a relatively small sum. El Al, Delta and United Airlines all offer seats in their economy plus section on many of their planes. While free for their elite frequent flier members or those passengers who purchase a full fare economy ticket, it is available for everyone else starting at $160 for their trans-Atlantic flights.
Or why not treat yourself to airport lounge access? That way you can at least put your feet up for an hour before having your knees crushed for three.
Old age and seat pitch are like a plane flying through a storm. Once you’re aboard, there’s nothing you can do.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. He can be reached at