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Finance: How to avoid the worst seat on the plane

Finance: How to avoid the worst seat on the plane



TV screens, installed on board of an Airbus A350 XWB flight-test aircraft.

The middle seat is arguably the most dreaded place to be on a flight. It's never fun being stuck between two strangers fighting for elbow room. Here are a few strategies to help you avoid getting stuck in the middle.

  • The middle seat is the worst seat on a plane. It's cramped and inconvenient.
  • You can avoid the middle seat by booking your flight early or avoiding basic economy tickets.
  • You also decrease the likelihood of getting a middle seat by carefully selecting the type of aircraft you fly.
  • The Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 fly with six-seats per row with two middle seats per row. Aircraft like the Airbus A220 has only one middle seat per row while the Embraer E190-E2 has no middle seats.

The middle seat — especially in coach — is one of the most dreaded and common scenarios in flying.

It's cramped, it's inconvenient, and it's often the only seat available on flights — particularly if you book at the last minute.

In the past, an easy way to ensure you get an aisle or window seat is to book your flight early.

However, airlines have figured out that their customers have an almost universal hatred for the middle seat.

Not only that, airlines have come to realize that many are actually willing to pay to avoid it.

For instance, most Basic Economy tickets allow passengers to select their seats only after checking in — at which point the window and aisle seats are likely to already be gone. (Note: Alaska Airlines does allow early seat selection for its basic economy fares.)

This means passengers will have to buy more expensive main cabin tickets in order to select seats at the time of booking.

On the other hand, Southwest — which doesn't assign seats — charges passengers as much as $50 for the privilege of boarding early.

Although it is impossible to completely rule out the possibility of ending up in the middle seat, there are several ways to avoid it without having to pony up extra dough.

First, in spite of the revenue generating fees airlines have come up with, booking early is still the best way to ensure you don't end up sandwiched in the middle. In addition to an increased likelihood of getting an aisle or window seats, booking early will also net you cheaper ticket prices.

According to a 2014 study by Expedia, the average price of tickets are its lowest 57 days ahead of the flight. A 2016 study, also conducted by Expedia, shows that those buying tickets more than three weeks in advance can expect to see savings of as much as 30%.

In fact, savings from cheaper tickets prices may allow you to "splurge" on the fees for aisle or window seats.

The right plane makes all the difference

Second, the plane used to operate the flight makes a big difference as well. These days, the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 along with their many derivatives dominate the short-to-medium-range market. Both aircraft are generally configured with six-abreast seating or six seats per row with two sections of three seats divided by a single aisle. This results in two middle seats per row.

However, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of ending up in the middle seat by taking flights using planes with fewer or no middle seats on board.

Instead of the 737 and A320, look for flights operated by Airbus A220 (Bombardier C Series), Sukhoi SuperJet 100, McDonnell Douglas MD80 series, MD90, and Boeing 717-200 jets. These aircraft feature five-abreast seating in a 3-2 configuration — meaning there is only one middle seat per row.

In the US, the McDonnell Douglas aircraft are mostly operated by Delta, American, and Allegiant. However, all three carriers are working to quickly replace their MD fleets with new 737 and A320-family planes. With that said, Delta and Hawaiian's Boeing 717-200s are expected to remain in service well into the next decade.

The Bombardier C-Series entered service with SWISS in July 2016. Over the next few years, the Canadian jetliner will become a more common sight in airports around the world with Delta, JetBlue, Air Canada, Air Baltic, SWISS, and Korean Air as its most well-known operators.

The Sukhoi Superjet is mainly operated by Russsian carriers. However, Mexico's Interjet does have around 20 in its fleet.

Another option is to take flights operated for the major airlines by regional carriers under names such as Delta Connection, United Express, and American Eagle. These flights are generally operated using regional jets or turboprop airliners.

Even though regional aircraft are smaller and more cramped, they are generally set up in a 2-2 configuration which means there are no middle seats. Here, look for aircraft such as the Bombardier CRJ, the Q400 turboprop as well as the Embraer ERJ.

The Embraer E170 and E190 series is a good 'tweener option. Seating anywhere between 70 to 100 passengers, the E-Jet operates both as a regional airliner and with mainline carriers such as American, Air Canada, Polish LOT, and JetBlue. Like the smaller regional jets, the E-Jet is usually set up in a 2-2 configuration with no middle seats. Embraer recently launched the second generation E-Jet called the E2 so expect this to be an option for many years to come.

Unfortunately for many flyers around the world, the narrow-body airliner fleet in Asia and Europe is a virtual duopoly split between the 737 and the A320-family. As a result, apart from encountering the odd C-Series, E-Jet or 717, passengers will have to fly on a regional jet to avoid six-abreast seating.

Choosing a flight based on the airplane also works on long-haul international flights. These flights are commonly operated by wide-body, twin-aisle airliners such as the Boeing 777, 787, and Airbus A350 as well as the larger Boeing 747 jumbos and the Airbus A380 superjumbos.

These large jets are generally set up with nine or even 10-abreast seating in a 3-3-3 or 3-4-3 configuration with either three or four middle seats per row in coach.

For flyers looking to avoid middle seats on long-haul flights, there are several types of aircraft they should hone in on.

First, Boeing's venerable twin-engine 767 wide-body is still around and can commonly be found with a 2-3-2 configuration. That means there's only one middle seat per row in coach. It should be noted, however, that many of the 767s are pushing 20 years of age and like the MD80/90, airlines such as American, Delta, and United are in the process of replacing them with newer models.

With the 767 on the way out, look for flights operated by the twin-engine Airbus A330 and its discontinued four-engined sibling, the A340. These airliners generally feature eight-abreast seating in a 2-4-2 configuration. As a result, the A330/A340 generally fly with only two middle seats per row in coach.

Fortunately, for flyers, the A330 one of the most popular wide-body airliners in the world with about 1,500 examples in operation and is still rolling off Airbus production lines. In fact, the company is currently selling a next-generation version called the A330neo.

Click here to read the full text by Benjamin Zhang

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