How legroom has shrunk since the golden age of flying – and the airlines that offer the most

On short-haul services, 32 inches of seat pitch was once typical, but now 29 is commonplace - Getty
On short-haul services, 32 inches of seat pitch was once typical, but now 29 is commonplace - Getty

How much more cramped are today’s planes compared with aviation’s “golden age”?

Economy class “pitch” on those early jets – the distance between two rows of seats – generally ranged from 34 to 36 inches. The Boeing 707, for example, offered 34 inches. So too did the first 747s.

Things started to change in the Eighties. In 1981, the New York Times reported that manufacturers were, for the first time, starting to cut seat pitch from the “industry standard” of 34-35 inches to just 32. In 1985, the Consumers Union, a US watchdog, published stats for America’s four biggest airlines (American, Delta, United and Southwest). Southwest offered as much as 35 inches in economy, while United’s upper limit was 36. None of the four went below 31.

On board a 747 in the Sixties - Getty
On board a 747 in the Sixties - Getty

Fast forward to 2022 and – according to the website SeatGuru – none of the four go above 33, while two (American and United) go as low as 30.

In 1990, The Telegraph compared seat pitch on a handful of airlines. For long-haul flights, Lufthansa, Qantas and Virgin all offered 34 inches in economy, while BA offered between 31 and 34. Today, 31 inches is standard.

On short-haul services, 32 was once typical, but now 29 is commonplace. This is what easyJet, Air Asia, Jetstar, Spicejet, Vueling and numerous others provide. Ryanair, to its credit, offers 30; BA between 29 and 31.

How low can they go?

Some airlines are really lowering the bar, cutting legroom – on some services at least – to only 28 inches. They include Jet2, Frontier, Iberia, TAP Portugal, Tui and Wizz Air.

Boeing concedes that seat pitch has fallen (by three inches, on average, it says), but claims improved seat designs, using less bulky composite materials, have softened the blow.

Wide load

When it comes to seat width, things have also worsened. In 1985, according to the Consumers Union, none of America’s big four offered less than 19 inches of width. Now, 17 is the norm, while American goes as low as 16.5, and United just 16.

If 29 inches is the threshold for seat pitch, then 17 inches appears to be the marker for width. Members of the sub-17 club, offering – on some flights at least – the worst seat widths in travel, include Ukraine International, China Southern, Philippine Airlines, Jet2, Hawaiian Airlines and AirAsia X.

How many abreast?

Narrower seats mean there’s room for more. On the 787, eight-abreast was popular at first, but now nine is seen as the magic number. Ten-abreast is popular on 777s. And we almost saw 11-abreast on the A380, using a 3-5-3 configuration, which would have created the world’s first middle, middle seat. Thankfully the demise of the superjumbo – Airbus ceased production of the model in 2021 – has put that prospect on ice.

Crowded house

Boeing might point to slimline seats, but even if comfort is not compromised by cutting pitch, cramming more people onto the same plane certainly makes it feel more crowded.

Take the 707. It was 44m long with a cabin width of 3.56m, and it carried 174 passengers in a single-class configuration. That’s 0.9 square metres per passenger. The new 737 MAX 8, however, is 39.5m long, 3.54m wide and carries 200 fliers. That’s 0.7 square metres each. It’s an imperfect calculation (it refers to the length of the plane rather than the length of the cabin), but it illustrates the problem.

What’s more, planes today fly closer to full capacity than they once did. In 2019, the last normal year for travel, the average passenger load factor, for all airlines around the world, was a record 82.6 per cent. But in 2011 it was 78.1 per cent, in 2005 it was 75.1 per cent, and before 2000 around 70 per cent was the norm.

Portlier passengers

Then there’s the issue of expanding passengers. Since 1993 the proportion of adults in England who are overweight has risen from 52.9 per cent to 64.3 per cent, and the proportion who are obese from 14.9 per cent to 28 per cent.

On top of that, thanks to airlines’ spiralling fees for hold luggage, those portly sunseekers are bringing with them more carry-on baggage than ever before, further cramping cabins.

The conclusion

Seats are shrinking, they are being squeezed closer together, and airlines are packing their ballooning customers into the same space. So what’s the solution?

You could lessen the nightmare by opting for an airline that offers more. Ryanair, as mentioned above, trumps many short-haul rivals when it comes to legroom, offering 30 inches. The likes of Air France, JetBlue, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Asiana, Egyptair, Croatia Airlines, Royal Jordanian, Saudia and Vietnam Airlines still provide at least 32 on most flights.

You could also fork out for premium economy. Ask when you check in and upgrades are often available for a relatively small sum. Or why not treat yourself to airport lounge access – then you can at least put your feet up for an hour before having your knees crushed for three?