A guide to picking the perfect seat for your flight

Most airlines are now charging extra for your choice of throne. So how do you find value for money at 30,000 feet?

Inflight entertainment screens and seating stand in the economy class cabin on board a Boeing Co. 777-300ER passenger jetliner, operated by Emirates Airline, at London Stansted Airport in Stansted, U.K., on Friday, June 8, 2018. The arrival of the jetliner should kick off a new phase of growth for the terminal 35 miles north of London, according to London Stansted Airport Chief Executive Officer Ken O'Toole. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
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Etihad recently sparked a lot of grumbling by introducing a policy of charging for seat ­selection in advance. If you're travelling in economy, and want to pick where you sit more than 24 hours ­before flying, you'll have to pay a Dh100 extra fee.

In fairness, this is in line with most other major airlines, including Emirates, but it does increase the risk of being lumped with that dreaded middle seat.

This may also mean that strategies for getting the prime spot may have to be re-evaluated. But before knowing that, you have to know what the best seats are – and they vary between aircraft and airline. There are several websites that allow you to compare seats, although Seatguru is the most widely used. For consistency, we’ve used that site’s comparison charts for all measurements.

Best seats with Emirates

Emirates will start receiving Boeing 777-8s and 777-9s in 2020, but for now, the vast majority of the fleet is made up of Airbus A380-800s and Boeing 777-300ERs. The catch is that they are set up in several different seating arrangements, so what’s best on one flight isn’t necessarily the best on another. Some A380s, for example, have 399 economy class seats on them – others have 557, largely but not entirely at the expense of fewer business and first-class seats.

The A380 seats generally have a larger width than the Boeing 777-300ERs – they’re 45.7 centimetres rather than 43.1cm. And there’s also a greater seat pitch – the distance between seat backs that translates to the amount of legroom you’ll get. It’s between 81.2cm and 86.3cm on the A380, but 81.2cm on the Boeing 777-300ER. This shouldn’t matter all that much, but there are some routes that are flown by two different planes. For example, the 2.45am flight to Perth in Western Australia is on the A380, and the 9.55am is on the B777-200LR – of which there are only 10 in the fleet. These have 83.8- to 86.3-cm seat pitch, but 43.8-cm width.

The best seats with Etihad

Emirates is a model of simplicity compared to Etihad. To complicate matters, several new types of aircraft are on order, of which the Airbus A350s and Boeing 787-10s should start arriving this year.

For now, though, Etihad’s seating is a real hodgepodge, although seat width is largely standardised at 44.4cm. Weirdly, the Airbus A321s and A320s used on short-haul routes have slightly more generous seats – 45.9-cm width – than those used on long-haul routes. Seat pitch on all planes is generally between 80cm and 83.8cm, although a lower 78.7cm exist on some – including the A380-800 and Boeing 777LR.

The seat statistics from various airlines
The seat statistics from various airlines

What other airlines flying to the UAE have to offer

Unlike Emirates and Etihad, Flydubai keeps things relatively simple. It currently only has Boeing 737-800s and Boeing 737 Max 8s in its fleet, with the economy seat pitch being 76.2cm on both. The width is a more generous 45.7cm.

For other airlines, it is very rare to find a seat pitch above 86.3cm or width above 45.7cm. Some aircrafts have rather weird combinations, such as one incarnation of the American Airlines Boeing 757-200 (752), which is roomy on the legs – with a 88.9-cm pitch, but has a gruesome 42.1-cm width.

Of the more spacious options, KLM’s 777-200s on the Amsterdam to Dubai route have a 88.9-cm pitch and 44.4-cm width. And that is as good as it gets unless you want to pay more to upgrade to premium economy or business class.

How to bag the top spot

Realistically, there’s only so much you can do when it comes to shopping between airlines and aircraft. On a majority of routes, you’re only going to have one option if you want to fly direct. And then it’s a case of digging out the best spots on the plane you’ve been given.

Increasingly, the only way to secure your preferred seat – or one with extra legroom such as those on the exit rows – is to pay for it.

If you’re not willing to do that, then a bit of detective work is in order. And the same applies to working out which seats are worth paying for. Seatguru does a magnificent job of colour-coding seats on individual aircrafts – put in your flight number to get the right seating plan for the plane you will be flying in.

Some seats are marked in green – these tend to have extra legroom, but may also have a bigger gap between seat and window than others, or just two seats in front rather than three, so you can stretch your legs out to the side.

For example, on Emirates flight 321 to Washington, DC, seats 68A, 68K, 81A and 81K on the A380-800 have extra legroom in this manner. But when the A380s are laid out in two class configuration, 81A and 81K don’t have this advantage.

Others are marked yellow or red due to factors some travellers may not like – such as limited recline, no overhead locker space, being next to the toilets or not having a window. 25A and 25K on one Etihad B777-330ER configuration are an example of the latter.

Knowing the exact plane ­configuration is helpful for choosing between seemingly identical good seats, too. For example, the Emirates A380s have some bulkhead seats (which have extra legroom) next to the stairs, galley and toilets. Those next to the stairs – usually 45D, 45E, 45F and 45G – will see fewer people brushing past you.

Get online to check in as close to the 24 hours in advance as possible, and you’re likely to at least avoid the worst seats – match the Seatguru grid to that provided by the airline.

… Or an empty seat next to you

Beyond that, a bit of psychology comes into play. The best economy seats, let’s face it, are the ones that have an empty seat next to them, allowing you to sprawl out and wriggle around without disturbing anyone.

One – flawed – way of getting that beloved empty space next to you is ­checking in at the airport, preferably fairly late, then asking how full the flight is. If not very full, ask in the most charming manner you can for a seat that has a spare next to it.

Alas, if the flight is pretty much full, this can backfire horribly, leaving you with the only seats left – undesired middle seats. Knowing those middle seats are the ones no one wants can be helpful when selecting a place, too. If you can create a single empty middle seat next to yours, your chances of it staying empty increase. So if there's a bank of four seats, where two at one end are already reserved, picking the one at the other end means the remaining seat – the one next to you – is one of the least desirable options left.

Couples can play this game, too, picking the aisle and window seat in a bank of three. If someone ends up between you, it’s likely they will agree to swap. Alternatively, there are often seats near the back where a bank of three narrows down to a bank of two. On some Etihad, B777-300ERs, this kicks in on row 41, where 41A and 41C are next to each other, and there’s no 41B to fight a stranger over.

Getting the best seat is part-art, part-science – but it’s certainly more complicated than just choosing to sit by the window or in the aisle.


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