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Where is the best place to sit on the plane?

They might all look the same, but different seats, in different parts of the same plane can give you a very different flying experience.

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Where the Best Seats Are

Row upon row of seats - all looking the same, but with subtle differences that can become important on a long journey.

Part 2 of a 3 part series - click for Parts  One  Two  Three



In part one of this series we discussed how to understand which seats were roomier and more spacious than others - with 'best of breed' for coach class seating generally going to American Airlines (update - alas this no longer applies due to AA discontinuing their 'More Room in Coach' seating).

In this part, we look at differences between seats in different parts of the plane, including the least known 'best place' to sit.  Part three discusses how to get the seats you want preassigned to you.

Are Seats in the Front or Back Better?

Generally, most people prefer to sit further forward on the plane, probably because they'll save a few minutes when getting off the plane. This is a valid point in favor of choosing a forward seat - but there are many other factors to keep in mind as well.

There is an advantage to being seated at the back. People at the back of the plane board first, which means that you're much more likely to be able to find plenty of overhead space for your carry-ons.

But there are also some reasons to avoid the rear of the plane. It can be a bit noisier if you're behind the engines. If you're in a plane such as a DC9 that has engines mounted to the rear of the plane (rather than on the wings) it is definitely noisier when you are seated alongside or behind them.

I try not to sit alongside the engines, just in case one of them might have a catastrophic failure such that parts fly out of the engine and into the plane cabin (mercifully a rare event, but why risk it!).

The back of the plane also moves about a bit more in turbulence than the front of the plane, with the most stable part of the plane being close to the wings.

Where is the Safest

It is common to believe that it is safer in the back of the plane than in the front of the plane, in terms of surviving a crash. However, detailed studies suggest that there is very little difference, wherever you are located. The strongest part of the plane is where the wings join the body, but there are often fuel tanks around that area which can be a disadvantage in a crash. There is so little difference in survivability rates that where you sit is not really a relevant factor.

Exit Row Seating

Most people seem to know the 'secret' of getting exit row seats. The seat rows alongside the exit window/doors are more widely spaced apart, to make it easier for people to move from the aisle to the exit in an emergency. Some airlines will pre-assign the exit row seats (if you ask very politely), others only assign them at the airport (due to the requirement that only able-bodied English speaking people be seated in the exit rows).

Bulkhead Rows

Some people like getting a bulkhead row seat. The good news is that there is no seat in front of you that might recline and limit your personal space. The bad news is that sometimes you can't stretch your legs quite as far in front as otherwise you could, and you have nowhere other than the overheads to stow carry-on items (although the flight attendants seem to almost always be able to find a place somewhere for your carry-ons if you're in a bulkhead row - you just might not be able to get to them during the flight).

Some airlines have infant bassinets hung off the bulkheads, so this could mean that you're sharing a row with very young children - for some people, this adds to the appeal, for others, ahem, it definitely does not!

Relationship to Movie Screen

If you're in a bulkhead row, you're either horribly close to the movie screen, or on such an extreme angle that you can't see it. If you're on a flight that will offer a movie, and which doesn't have personal seatback screens, then you might want to ensure that your seat is neither too close nor too far from a screen, and with a reasonable angle of vision.

Where are the Toilets and Galleys

If you're seated close to a toilet or galley, then you will probably have a lot more people passing your seat, stopping nearby, talking and laughing, than otherwise. This may not be a problem on a short day flight, but can be a nuisance on a long overnight flight when you're trying to sleep.

On the other hand, if you're a long way from the toilets, on some flights it can seem that just about the entire flight it is impossible to get to the toilets due to the presence of serving carts in the aisles blocking your ability to get there.

Window or Aisle Seating?

You probably already know which you prefer, and I'm not going to try and persuade you otherwise! Window seats have a view, and may have a convenient 'side' that you can lean on when sleeping; aisle seats allow you to spill over into the aisle a bit (but then you run the risk of being bumped into and trod on!). Aisle seats are more convenient if you expect to want to get up during the flight.

One thing to be aware of is that if you want a window seat to enjoy the view, make sure you don't get a seat that is over the wing. The airlines and travel agents can usually tell in their computer which seats are over the wing and will try and give you a seat with a better view if you specifically request this.

Danger - Seat Back Restrictions

Some seats do not allow their seat back to recline fully - sometimes they allow a small measure of recline and sometimes no recline at all. These are typically seats in the rows immediately in front of emergency exit rows, and sometimes at the back of a cabin where there is a bulkhead behind them. Try and avoid these seats at all costs.

The Secret 'Best' Seats

Towards the back of some planes, you'll find that the blocks of seats start to have one less seat in them. These rows are often considered to be the best seats in coach class because you have more room, side to side, and sometimes more room in front of you as well. It does place you way at the back of the plane - not otherwise the best part of the plane to be in - but if you're on a long flight, the extra comfort is probably worth the several extra minutes to get off the plane at the other end.

Now that you have a better idea of what your seating choices may be, next week we'll discuss how to optimize your chances of getting the seats you want.

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Originally published 18 Jan 2002, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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