A commercial airplane seat FAQ


Airlines reserve the right to move you from your paid reservation airplane seat assignment


Airplane seat

Have you ever arrived at the airport to find the airplane seat you carefully chose was no longer your assigned seat? Were you ever seated on your flight in first class then moved to an economy seat?

I’ve encountered both situations and they were maddening.

There’s much to know about an airplane seat and its assignment, so here’s a brief seat FAQ to help you for your future air travel.

Choosing an airplane seat when you purchase a ticket doesn’t guarantee you that seat.
Guaranteed assigned seats on commercial flights is a myth. Even VIPs or celebrities sometimes lose their seats. You may have recently read about the Twitter broadside by political pundit, Ann Coulter, when Delta moved her from her chosen extra-fee seat.

For operational, safety or security reasons, airlines reserve the right to reassign seats, seat fee or not, even after you board. It may not have happened to you, but passengers’ seats are reassigned every day.

Passengers’ seat assignments are changed to try to seat families together, accommodate passengers bumped from first class by air marshals, find seats for top-tier fliers, squeeze in passengers from canceled flights, etc. I’ve been caught a couple of times when my plane had to be swapped for a smaller capacity plane, due to mechanical problems. While my seat changed, at least I wasn’t bumped like some passengers.

All airplane seats are not the same.
Seats on planes may look alike, but don’t necessarily have the same size, feature set or comfort, even ones next to each other.

Some seats have power outlets, others don’t. This can be important for passengers on long flights with tablets, games, and laptops. Some seats next to lavatories or galleys can be noisy throughout the flight. Some seats barely recline, if at all. I’ve sat in exit row window seats without a window. Some seats, particularly in bulkhead rows, have no below seat storage. Many bulkhead seats are extra narrow, due to immovable arm rests to accommodate their tray tables.

The SeatGuru website and apps are great sources of information for you to find out everything about the seats on your flight. I use it whenever I purchase plane tickets.

What does “seat pitch” really mean?
Seat pitch, a big deal for taller passengers, is the distance from the back of one seat to the seatback of the seat in front of it. Generally, the smaller the seat pitch, the less legroom you’ll have. Airlines have been reducing seat pitch and switching to thinner seatback seats to squeeze more seats into their planes.

While seat pitch is important, it’s not the only factor contributing to airplane seat comfort. The quality of seat padding, the size of the seat bottom, the amount of potential seat recline and, personally meaningful to me, the shape of the seat back and size and height of the headrest, all contribute to passenger comfort.

Are all airplane seats the same width?
In a word, “No!” There is often a significant disparity in the width of seats in different classes of seats in planes, and in the width of seats between planes and airlines. For example, on American Airlines’ Airbus A321 V1 Transcon, the width of first class seats is 21 inches, business class 18.5–19.5 inches and economy 18 inches. Compare that to the seat widths on American’s Bombardier CRJ-700. First class seats are 21 inches wide, while the remaining seats are a narrow 17.3 inches wide. On Spirit Airlines’ A321, their “big front” seats are 20 inches wide, while the remainder of the plane’s seats are just 17.75 inches wide.

Airplane seat width is important to large passengers, especially ones with wide hips, as well as passengers seated beside them. If you’re seated next to a large passenger in narrow seating, you’ll likely find them taking some of your space due to their large body size.

Airplane seat etiquette to consider to get along with fellow passengers.
Getting along with passengers seated next to you and behind you can make a major difference in the quality of your flight. It’s okay to exercise your seat rights, but don’t ignore other passengers’ rights.

Armrest use in economy can be contentious. To me, the inner armrests go to the middle seat. They don’t have a window to lean on or the room plus armrest of the aisle seat.

I understand that sometimes large middle seat passengers want to lift up the middle armrests to add more space to the seat. Unfortunately, that usually means that they will take some of the seat space of their row-mates, which isn’t fair. I don’t allow it.

Seat recline is a big issue for many passengers. I’ve got a bad back. Sitting upright for an extended time is painful, so I recline my seat, as necessary, for my back. To be mindful of the passenger behind me, I don’t recline my seat during a meal service and warn the passenger behind me before reclining. I then recline slowly to not disturb anything on their tray table.

There’s a lot to consider when choosing an airplane seat, and more to think about when using it. Choose wisely and be considerate of fellow passengers.