People often ask me how they get more room when they fly, and my general rule is this: since they largely have wider seats, Airbus planes almost always give you more space than Boeing planes.
That rule will hold at least nine flights out of ten, but the details of the 10% can get a bit more complicated. Here’s why. Space on board modern airliners depends on three factors: legroom, elbow room, and the number of seats in each row. Airlines can vary the legroom as much as they like, but seat width is set depending on the number of seats in each row on a particular type of plane.
So, let’s talk specific aircraft to pick — and to avoid. On the standardsized six-across planes that are the world’s most frequently seen aircraft, every Airbus A320 family (including the A318, A319 and A321) aircraft is wider than the Boeing 737 or 757 — some 15 centimetres wider, in fact. Taking into account the aisle and walls, that’s a bit less than 2.5 cm, roughly an inch, of extra space per passenger. Things are a little more complicated with larger planes, although our “Airbuses have wider seats than Boeings” rule still holds, with a few exceptions. The Boeing 767, discontinued in its passenger version but still used by a number of airlines (especially in North America and Japan), is one of the most comfortable ways to fly in economy, with wider seats and only one middle seat in the 2-3-2 seating layout. It’s certainly one to pick. At the same time, the Airbus A350 — which normally has very spacious wider seats in a 3-3-3 layout — is very narrow if, as some low cost and leisure/charter airlines plan to do, a tenth seat is added in each row. However, airlines doing this are very rare indeed: only small French Caribbean airline Air Caraïbes has added an extra seat so far.
Airbus A380s are generally excellent, especially if you’re on one of the airlines that has an upper deck economy section, where there are only eight seats in every row instead of ten, and where each window seat gets a sizeable side storage bin. Even the 3-4-3 main deck is spacious, though. Some airlines’ Boeing 777 aircraft still have nine-across seating: Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines, Delta and Air China stand out among the larger airlines here. These seats are nice and wide, and there’s only one middle seat in each section of the 3-3-3 layout. But the majority of airlines now use a 3-4-3 configuration on the 777, which is very narrow and has two middle seats in the centre section. Book the 777 with caution.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, too has very narrow seats in a nineabreast layout, which means you lose elbow room in the 3-3-3 configuration. Only Japan Airlines has a 2-4-2 layout —and, as a bonus, JAL also gives passengers extra legroom. Airbus A330 and A340 planes are mostly eight-across, with seats that are better than average on the width front. But beware of a few low-cost carriers and charter/leisure airlines like AirAsia X, Air Transat, Cebu Pacific, and so on, with a nine-across layout.
If you’re connecting on regional flights, it’s a bit more granular still, with a lot of numbers! The little Bombardier C Series is a great bet with wider seats and only five seats in each row in a 2-3 layout, as is the Embraer EJet family (E170/175/190/195) with wider seats and a 2-2 configuration. But skip the Bombardier CRJ 200/700/900/1000, Embraer ERJ134/140/145, and most propeller planes like the Bombardier Dash8 Q100/200/Q300/Q400, or the ATR42/72.
So, to sum up, when booking, you’ll be more comfortable on:
- Airbus A320, A330*, A340, A350*, A380, Boeing 767, older 777s†, Bombardier C Series, Embraer E170/175/190/195
* be careful on low cost and leisure/charter airlines like AirAsia X, Air Caraïbes, Air Transat, etc
† look at the seat map: these are the ones with nine seats in each row.
And avoid if you can:
- Boeing 737, 757, 757, newer 777s*, 787†, Bombardier CRJ, Embraer ERJ, Bombardier Q400, ATR42/72
* look at the seat map: these are the ones with ten seats in each row
† one excellent exception: Japan Airlines
John Walton is an international aviation journalist, follow him @thatjohn.