Plane legroom is shrinking, so use SeatExpert to pick your seat

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I recently asked a bunch of airline spokespeople if legroom on planes has shrunk in the past couple of decades. I heard back a resounding "No." But I had trouble believing it.

Yesterday, I felt vindicated. The Wall Street Journal's Scott McCartney reported some anecdotal evidence that there really is less legroom. His report:

"New Boeing737-800s now being delivered to American Airlines have the same-size cabins as the existing 737-800s in American's fleet. But the new planes have 12 more coach seats, pushing the total number of seats to 160. Delta Air Lines has also added 10 seats to its 737-800s, raising the total to the same 160. So has Continental Airlines."

This means that legroom is shrinking. For American's planes, many rows used to have 32 or 33 inches of legroom, depending. Now it will be 31 inches throughout the coach class cabin. Even the "bulkhead" seats—the ones in the first row of economy class—will lose legroom. And we shouldn't pick just on American. A few other major airlines are making the same move.

What to do? Here's the advice of Budget Travel's editors:

Always reserve a specific seat when you book a flight or a package. (The closer you sit to the lavatory, the more likely you'll smell like it even after you've deplaned.) If you end up with a bum seat, try to switch to a better one at check-in. And if that still doesn't work, try again at the gate. Gate agents have the power to re-seat you, while flight attendants don't (expect when it comes to the emergency rows and passengers violating airline policies).

Up until now, we've recommend that fliers use to scope the plane's best and worst rows.

But this spring, the competing site SeatExpert has gotten a fresh look. The site is much easier to use for the average budget-consicous leisure traveler who is flying only a few times a year in North America or Western Europe.*

Type in your airline name, flight number, and depature date. The site will fetch for you a seat map for your flight. (Rival site SeatGuru requires that you figure out the model of aircraft on your own, which isn't always easy to do.)

SeatExpert uses info supplied by past travelers and aircraft manufacturers to tell you which seats are best. Its color-coded scheme shows which seats are rated as good, bad, or awful for 57 carriers.

Does a seat have little legroom? You'll find out. Will you be one of the last people to get off the plane? You'll get the skinny. Is the seat in the part of a plane near a stinky bathroom, without direct access to a window, or in a part of the plane prone to additional sideways motion? You'll get the scoop at SeatExpert.

Jargon alert: When the site uses the term "seat pitch," it means legroom as defined by the number of inches between rows.

*If you're flying every month or flying within small, overseas countries, you may instead find that SeatGuru has better coverage.


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