The ability to fly from point A to point B in an airplane is amazing! I’m still blown away by how this works. Initially it was too expensive for the average person to experience this, but now most can at some point afford a trip via plane. In fact, discount airlines have lowered the prices so low it’s sometimes cheaper than other modes of transportation. Unfortunately this has caused airlines to cut back cost in certain areas. One area is seating, especially in the economy cabin.
The seats keep getting closer and closer together. Sometimes I would be more comfortable standing for the entire duration of a flight versus cramming myself into a middle seat between a woman eating a rotisserie chicken and a toddler that wants to kick me in the head every minute. Dishonorable mention goes to the now defunct AirTran. They were a discount line that was bought out by Southwest Airlines. I realize the concept behind a discount airline, but if you are buying an economy ticket, there is no difference between the small and big airlines. It’s not like either have perks anymore. Cape Air also deserves mention despite not making the top ten. Granted this is a smaller airline, but the seats are only 17 inches wide and only 27 inches apart. If that gives you anxiety, you probably don’t want to know about how you may get weighed prior to boarding.
We are looking at pitch, width and general pain factors. Big and small, they are all represented here. Here are the ten airlines with the worst economy seats.
10 Frontier Airlines
Budget airline Frontier Airlines did the unthinkable; they increased the width of the middle seats to over 19 inches (an increase of over an inch). This sounds like a win for the everyday person, but hold on, let’s look into the details. The reason they increased the seats is because average sized human beings were slumping into the aisle and window seats. Note the increase is 1.3 inches in total, not a lot of extra room, and this is only for the middle seat. Aisle and window seats are still 18.1 inches wide. Also, the space between rows was shrunk to only 28 inches of space.
Full disclosure: Delta has been involved in four of my five worst flight experiences. I am not happy with this airline and will even pay a little extra to avoid them. The customer service of Delta leaves a lot to be desired. Ever see someone in the corner of a boarding area, sitting alone and trying to jam their thumb into their eyes? Good chance they are flying Delta. I’ve digressed, let’s talk seats. Their seats are 17-18 inches depending on the airplane. If you happen to be on one of the old Northwest planes (are they still around?) you can take off another good inch of space. Again, I really can’t be objective here. I firmly believe this airline tries to spike my blood pressure.
This airline has set out to create a full-on class war between the rich and poor. On one side they have their business class which has luxurious perks (saunas at Helsinki airport) and overflowing seats. In economy, their small seats clock in at 18 inches wide and only 31 inches of pitch. The problem is the larger planes which seat 227 passengers. These seats are also 18 inches wide with an average of only 28 inches of pitch. More please? Okay, how about there is no reclining. Apparently the seats are “pre-reclined,” which gives me a back pain just thinking about it.
7 American Airlines
Every inch matters, right? That’s especially true with airline seats and that’s why American Airlines makes this list. Despite an overhaul of planes that will supposedly create more room you are still likely to be seated in one of their older planes that feature a 17 inch wide economy seat. Oh, and the 31 inches (after recline) offers little relief. Never mind being in the air, can you imagine sitting on a runway or waiting for a gate to open? Every minute matters when you’re packed in like a sardine. If there was a way to make every seat a middle seat I’m sure American Airlines would be the first one to adopt this.
So Allegiant is popular on the West Coast for short trips which makes having a small or uncomfortable seat more bearable. However, this airline also has hubs in Florida and Hawaii. Do you know how long a flight it is to Hawaii? Really, really long and it’s often during the day so you don’t get to sleep. You have to stay awake in your 17-inch wide seat that doesn’t recline. It was comedian Lewis Black that made the joke that if you are flying in economy (in the middle seat) it feels like your head is in a vice. Yes, that pretty much sums up a flight to Hawaii on Allegiant airline.
Ryanair is a proud of their discounted no frills approach to travel. We’ll get to the seats in a second, but let’s check out some of their other greatest hits. Toilets are a good place to start. Ryanair reduced bathrooms from 3 to 1 in many of their planes. Also, if you want any type of priority or order you have to pay extra for everything (like printing out boarding passes). All of this adds up to a final cost that is equal or more to other “non-discount” airlines. Okay, their seats have only 29 inches of pitch. No surprise, it’s not like you're expecting “oh, but they make up for it with their roomy seats.” No, no frills means no frills.
4 Hawaiian Air
The good news is that you are not in these planes for very long - most flights are 30-45 minutes from island to island. Any longer and you may need to schedule back surgery. The planes are structured with 50 economy seats, in a snug 2 by 2 configuration. The seats are just 17 inches wide and have only 30 inches of pitch. These may be the most uncomfortable planes in the world, but because of the short distance and the fact that you are in paradise, we give it a pass. Even the name Hawaiian Air sounds better than let’s say, Delta Airlines. Sounds a lot better.
3 Spirit Airlines
Okay, so Spirit Airlines was my other top five worst flight experience. Believe me, I’m not anti-small airlines (love Southwest and Jet Blue), but some airlines take discounting to a special level. In addition to world-class terrible customer service, Spirit charges for using their 1-800 number and also charges for water. Like other discounters, the fees associated with printing boarding passes and checking luggage will have you giving back any money you tried to save. The seats have 28 inches of pitch so you pretty much aren’t sitting and aren’t standing. You are crouching for 3 hours on your flight from hell.
2 United Airlines
I often wonder how many back surgeries could have been avoided if there was no such thing as airline economy seating. United Airlines is known for many things, including layoffs, worker strikes and making billions of dollars (some years). They are the biggest airline in the U.S. They are also known for their very uncomfortable seats. With a pitch of 30 inches and width of only 17.2 inches some of their planes, you would think one of the leaders in the industry could give an inch. They don’t and judging from their recent numbers, they don’t have to. They can be jerks about their seat size and there is nothing we can do about it. It’s not like I’m going to fly Delta over United…
1 Air Transat
I mean, Air Transat needs a round of applause. This airline is based in Canada with major hubs in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. The A310 and A330 plane models typically have eight seats in a row. Someone at Air Transat had a thought, “what if there were nine in a row?” There you have it, that’s how you end up with a seat width of 16.4 inches. When you fly Air Transat you must fold your clothes prior to travel and fold your body to fit into your economy airline seat. How many executives toured the plane after the first row of nine seats was installed? I bet they were all there and nodding with proud approval.