If you fly regularly and prefer a window seat, sometimes things can go awry. You board, head for your window seat only to find that…it has no window. You have all the downside of having to bother your neighbours to get out to the bathroom, but none of the advantages of a view of our gorgeous planet at thirty thousand feet. Here’s the skinny on how to avoid the unfortunate situation of staring at a plastic wall while flying.
But why are there windows missing in the first place?
Yep, I’m sorry to tell you that windowless window seats are a thing. They're incredibly annoying if you picked (and even paid!) for a window.
There are a couple of reasons why there might be a missing window in your row. Mythbusting time: it’s not because airlines are evil and moving all the rows closer together. (I mean, they’re doing that, but that doesn’t affect whether a particular row is missing a window, although not every window will be in the same place on each row.)
If there’s a missing window on your plane, it’s usually because there’s something behind it. Most of the time that’s going to be something very unglamorous like ducting for aircraft wiring, the air-conditioning system, and so on.
Sometimes it’s because the aircraft structure gets in the way: usually that’s where two sections of the fuselage are jointed together, and you’ll understand pretty quickly why it’s a bad idea to put a window-sized hole in what is essentially the equivalent of a wooden wall stud but for airplanes.
Where are the windowless windows?
It is pretty tricky to find them because every airline outfits its planes differently: some have big seats up front in first class or business class, some have extra-legroom economy sections, some have closets and galley kitchen spaces, and so on. So, I can’t tell you 'oh yes, avoid row 12'.
On the majority of Boeing 737-700s, for example, you’ll find missing windows on the left-hand side, a bit in front of the wing. This might be anywhere from around row 7 to row 15, though, depending on the airline.
On some Airbus A320s, particularly the newer A320neo versions, the last row of the cabin may not have a window. (It may also have less legroom and is of course right next to the lavatories… many reasons not to sit back here if you can avoid it!)
And often, an emergency exit row might not have a window, or it might be strangely aligned, so buyer beware there.
There is one silver lining in some of these windowless rows, though, with the growth of extra-legroom economy seating sections, like United’s Economy Plus or Delta’s Comfort+. These seats are often situated towards the front of the aircraft, and each row has a few extra inches of legroom to entice people to part with a bit more cash, and to hand out to their very frequent flyers as a bit of a perk for their loyalty.
In some aircraft, these extra-legroom seats stretch a fair way back in the cabin and can often include the rows that are missing windows. Quite often, the airlines (reasonably enough!) feel that they can’t charge a premium for window seats without a window, even in the extra-legroom rows, and so you may be able to score a bit more space — but with no window — without the fee.
Can I avoid these windowless windows?
Unfortunately, airlines make it remarkably difficult to figure out where the windowless windows are, which is a real shame. I’m very much of the opinion that disappointing people at the last minute, having them get on the plane thinking they’ve picked a seat they’ll like only to discover that they’ve been taken for a ride is pretty bad customer service.
There are a number of seat map websites out there that purport to be able to tell you whether something is a good seat or a bad seat, with colour coding and so on.
In my experience, none of these websites can be trusted to be entirely accurate. That’s especially true the further you get away from the US, but even there the websites often don’t have the right information on the latest versions of cabin layouts. (American Airlines alone has more than three hundred Boeing 737 aircraft, delivered over the last twenty years, so unsurprisingly the airline has a bunch of different configurations, or what the aviation industry calls 'subfleets' of their 737 fleet.)
What’s the best plan?
My suggestion: check the airline seat map when booking. Then check it again when you’ve booked — sometimes the diagrams are different in the airline’s 'manage booking' system than in its reservation systems.
Run a quick web search for your airline and the kind of aircraft listed on your booking ('Austrian A320 seat map', 'Delta 737-800 seat map', as specific as you can), and keep gardening your reservation until it’s time to check in. Do a final check… and cross your fingers!
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