First, let’s get one thing straight: the middle seat in an economy class airplane cabin is never going to be the best seat.
Some people try to put a positive spin on getting stuck in an economy class middle seat. “It’s a chance to make new friends or to network with the passengers on both sides.” That’s great until your new acquaintances steal your armrest, mistake your shoulder for a pillow, or think it’s okay to store their shoes or laptop bag in your foot space. (Or until you have to undertake a climbing expedition to go the lavatory).
If you take advantage of no-frill fares, which more and more airlines are offering, chances are you will end up in a middle seat quite often. This is because one of the conditions of these cheaper fares is that you do not get to pre-select where you sit.
Will the middle seat ever get better?
Yes, but there is also a chance that things could get worse.
The commercial air travel math equation is not in fliers’ favor: the more seats that airlines can cram into their planes, the more tickets they can sell, and the more profits they can make. Because profit margins are tiny in the commercial air travel industry, every seat counts.
The FAA recently declined to put a minimum on seat size, meaning that airlines are free to shrink seats as much as possible. Currently, the tiniest chairs in the industry belong to low-cost carriers Frontier and Spirit (who both have a seat pitch of 28 inches), while most others are at 30–31 inches for economy class. (“Pitch” refers to the distance from a given point on an airplane seat to the same point on the seat in front of it).
Airlines have toyed with different ideas for making the middle seat more attractive. One interesting suggestion that has yet to take off is to offer gift bags provided by a sponsor (advertiser) to middle-seat sitters.
The biggest hope for passengers comes from new seat designs, some of which have the potential to make the middle seat more comfortable. None of these designs have found their way onto airplanes yet, but some are realistic options because they will not require airlines to lower the number of seats on their planes. That’s a vital concept. Any middle-seat (or economy seat) solution has to also improve an airline’s bottom line. Otherwise, they won’t make the investment.
Airlines do invest… when it makes financial sense.
Commercial carriers have long been criticized in environmental circles for their contribution to air pollution (especially carbon emissions). There has been some action on this front in recent years. Fewer jumbo jets, such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, are in the skies, and airlines are also experimenting with biofuels.
Did the industry suddenly grow a green conscience? No, but skyrocketing oil prices wreaked havoc on the industry during the previous decade, leaving airlines pushing for ways to protect themselves from the fluctuations in the oil market. Biofuels and more-efficient plans like the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 became an important part of the solution.
A similar dynamic could be at play when it comes to seating.
New designs could make middle seats (and econ seats in general) more comfortable.
A couple of these designs give the middle seat a makeover. A staggered seat by Molon Labe Designs includes a middle chair that is lower and further back than the aisle and window seats that surround it. This gives it three more inches of width and, more importantly, its own armrests. A related design involves seats that slide on top of middle seat. This layout is meant for quicker boarding (there will be more room in the aisle), but it also results in a slightly larger and staggered middle seat.
Other designs don’t bring specific benefits to middle-seaters, but they could make flying more comfortable. A firm called SE Aeronautics has ultra-thin ergonomic chairs that provide extra leg room and width because they are so slim. UK-based LAYER has designed a chair that does not recline, but does have special settings, ports, and plugins for your tech. It also has a massage setting.
These examples are light and thin, so they decrease overall airplane weight, which is an important positive for airlines looking to increase fuel efficiency and decrease operations costs. The worry, from a passenger’s perspective, is that rather than letting passengers enjoy the extra few inches due to the thinner seats or staggered layout, airlines will push the seats closer together and try to add additional rows.
Also, airlines aren’t completely oblivious to economy class discomforts.
At some point, airlines are going to stop shrinking seats. Some industry stakeholders, including United CEO Oscar Munoz, are saying that airlines are going to start losing customers if they continue shrinking seats and lowering service expectations.
It could get better… or worse
Another design that certainly does not have many fans among passengers is the standing seat from Italian company Aviointeriors, which resembles one of those roller coasters where you are harnessed in while your feet hang down. At least with these seats, you won’t have to worry about being miserable in the middle seat because everyone will be equally uncomfortable. (Aviointeriors does have other traditional designs as well).
What can you do in the meantime?
Currently, the smallest seats in the US domestic market are in Spirit and Frontier airlines. The amount of leg-and-butt room that you get on other airlines depends on the plane. In general, the seat pitch on American Airlines’ econ cabins is an inch less than other legacy carriers. JetBlue’s 32–33 inch seat pitch makes them the most comfortable option for economy fliers. There is one commonly used plane, the Embraer E190-E2, that does not have middle seats at all.
There are ways that you can avoid the middle seat, but it is almost always going to cost you.
Basic economy passengers get whatever is left over when they check in. Standard fares, which are a step above basic econ, allow you to pick a window or aisle seat, and some airlines provide you with an option to buy more leg room in flights by upgrading to premium economy. This upgrade could be between a few dollars and few hundred dollars.
You can avoid the middle seat on your next flight, but only if you are lucky or if you are willing to pay more than the minimum fare. New seat designs could eventually end the middle seat blues, but this will only happen if airlines.