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Have Seats on Airplanes Gotten Smaller?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Taking an airplane flight today is quite common, and literally millions of people board an airplane each day, traveling to virtually every part of the globe. Some will find their ride slightly uncomfortable, because airplane seats are a little smaller. The average seats measure 17.2 to 18 inches across (43.68 to 45.72 cm), which means that anyone with more than a 36 inch (91.44 cm) hip measurement is likely to feel a little squeezed upon sitting down. Some airlines insist that airplane seats measurements have not changed at all, and that more people — especially in North America — are simply bigger, making the seats seem smaller.

There are some exceptions to the relatively small size, with some airlines using their bigger seats as a selling point. First class and business or executive class flights may offer wider seats as well.

Another, and perhaps more crucial difference in airplane seats comes from the measurements between seats aligned vertically. This measurement, called the pitch, has changed considerably. While people are a bit wider, they are also considerably taller than they once were, on average. Much discomfort in long flights comes from the inability to move one’s legs properly due to small pitches.

In first class, pitch is seldom an issue, and most have a generous 80-inch (203.2 cm) pitch. On coach or economy class planes, pitch tends to be about 31 inches (78.74 cm). Some companies offer a larger pitch of 33-34 inches (83.82-86.36 cm), and Boeing, in fact, has standardized a 33 inch (83.82 cm) pitch for in its 777s. Smaller planes are likely to offer the smallest pitch, and international flights the largest.

In all, however, pitch is still by many accounts too small, which in turn makes airplane seats feel too small. A person over 6 feet (1.82 m) tall, with hips wider than 3 feet (0.91 m) is likely to feel squeezed both vertically and horizontally on the smallest seats with the smallest pitch. Anyone who has had the experience of having the seat kicked by a small child in a seat directly behind him will also realize that smaller pitch makes this possible.

Airplane seats are often criticized because adding more seats to a plane often means reducing pitch. Even when a plane is only half-full, the distance between rows is still likely to cause discomfort on long flights, and perhaps on short flights as well. Some companies are attempting to increase pitch, but this then leads to greater ticket prices, because the same amount of fuel transports fewer people.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon297384 — On Oct 15, 2012

I'm not complaining about seats when flying a couple of hours. For overseas flights, I would expect at least as much comfort in the front seat as in a Ford or Fiat 500. It is not space. It's a complete lack of ergonomics.

By SarahSon — On Sep 20, 2012

I am what most people would consider a petite person. I am 5 feet tall and weigh 100 pounds. While I have no trouble fitting in an airplane seat, I can't imagine how someone much bigger than me can even squeeze in the seat.

When you look at airplane seats they look like they are made for teenagers, not grown adults. There is barely enough room for me to fit in my seat, but if I was really squeezed in tight I can imagine how miserable it would be.

I have a friend who is very overweight and she is afraid to fly anywhere because she is really afraid she won't be able to fit in the seat, or she will be charged for more than one seat.

By Mykol — On Sep 20, 2012

My husband is a big guy and is pretty miserable when he is on an airplane for very long. He likes to get an aisle seat so he can at least get up and stretch his legs when he needs to.

When I book a flight, I automatically look for the cheapest price, but I might start to look at how much some of the more expensive seats might cost. If they provide more leg room and aren't so cramped, it might be worth it if you are going to be on the airplane for more than a couple of hours.

By myharley — On Sep 19, 2012

If the North American population has gotten bigger, it seems crazy that airplane seats have gotten smaller. I am not saying we should change the size of airplane seats to accommodate people who are overweight, but why did they need to actually make them smaller?

I find flying to be uncomfortable no matter what, and to realize that the seats really have gotten smaller over the years is very frustrating.

By anon286724 — On Aug 22, 2012

What most do not understand is seat sizes on airplanes have over the years gotten smaller and smaller. Want an example? Look back in time and remember airplanes at one time only had one size seat, and they were equal to what is in first class now. So go ahead, look it up and see the airline wants smaller seats so they can fit more seats no matter what.

By indemnifyme — On May 09, 2012

I think these small seats are definitely an example of a company making extra profit on the discomfort of their customers. More seats mean they can fit more people on a flight and collect more fares. The airlines obviously don't care if people are comfortable or not!

It's unfortunate, because it's not like customers can boycott the airlines long term or something. Sometimes you just need to travel by air, and there are no other options that will work!

By Azuza — On May 08, 2012

@Monika - I'm with you. The last time I flew I was asking myself, "How wide are airplane seats anyway?" and the answer was: not wide enough! I'm about average size, and I definitely wasn't comfortable on my flight. And to top it off, the gentleman next to me was very obese, and ended up taking up part of my seat and the leg space. It was horrible.

However, I don't think the answer is for that man to lose weight or buy two seats. In reality, the average American is bigger in the past, so there is no reason the seats should be smaller. The airlines should accommodate the average American, and the average American is kind of large these days.

By Monika — On May 07, 2012

@StarJo - That's interesting that you're comfortable on airplanes. I'm a healthy weight for my size also, and I was very uncomfortable the last time I flew on a plane. I felt really cramped, and I barely had enough space for my legs!

Let me just say here, that I'm only 5'2. I'm not exactly tall, so there's no reason why a seat on an airplane should be uncomfortable to me.

So, let me just recap: I'm a healthy weight and fairly short, and the seats are too small for me. I think this is a little ridiculous, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable even people of average height are on planes.

By OeKc05 — On May 07, 2012

I have to buy the cheapest airline ticket available whenever I go to visit my family in New York, so I can’t be choosy about the size of my seat. I usually wind up with one that is pretty small, and though it isn’t wonderfully comfortable, I can deal with it for a few hours.

I’m sure that if I were flying somewhere overseas that would take many hours to get to, I probably would have more of a problem with the size of the seat. However, I can get where I’m going in about three hours, so it isn’t so bad.

I keep telling myself that I saved lots of money by getting on that flight, so being just a little cramped is a small inconvenience. As long as I’m not feeling ill or sore from exercise, then I do all right.

By StarJo — On May 06, 2012

@shell4life - Maybe that could serve as motivation for these people to lose weight. I’m sorry, but obesity has become such an epidemic in this nation, and people not being able to fit in their airplane seats is just one complaint that seems a bit ridiculous to me.

If they are so worried about comfort while traveling, then they should put forth the effort to lose the extra weight. I am the ideal weight for my height, and I never have any problem with the size of the seats or the pitch.

Now, if they get any smaller than they are, I will take issue with that. I think that overall, airplane seats are a reasonable size now, though.

By shell4life — On May 05, 2012

I have heard of several overweight people becoming offended because of airplane seat size. I can see how it would be embarrassing to have your butt hanging off the seat because it’s too big.

It is sad that airlines would actually reduce the size of seats that are already too small for many people to sit in comfortably. That just goes to show that they are scrounging for every dollar they can get.

How many customers will continue to fly with airlines having small seats, though? I believe that overweight people will consider seat size when choosing which airline to use.

By anon3138 — On Aug 13, 2007

Can you tell me the measurement under the seat of an airplane?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseTour contributor, Tricia...
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