Aeroplane seats have come a long way: The early ones were made of wicker. Yet ask any flight attendant, and he or she will tell you that they hear complaints on a frequent basis. Are some seats better than others? And more importantly — how can you nab those spots for yourself?
Every detail in a commercial aircraft cabin is intentional. The typical blue or blue-green hues are chosen with colour psychology in mind, since such tones have a reputation for being universally liked and calming.
It doesn’t always work on cranky passengers, though.
As a flight attendant, I had to tell complaining passengers, “You paid for the seat, not the space in front of it or the bin space above you.” Some of us have even been bribed with chocolates or baked goods: “I’d love it if you could find me a better seat,” said the hopeful passenger with a wink-wink as they handed over the gift of treats.
It’s common to hear gripes about seat comfort, legroom, size — and, of course, other passengers reclining their seats. There are whispers that some seats are better than others, but is true? The short answer: Yes.
* * *
Where is the most comfortable seat? If you’re lucky, you may get an economy seat that allows for a slight recline feature of a few inches or legroom in bulkhead seat or emergency exit row. It’s a different story in first and business classes where some airlines have ventured beyond the traditional wider and softer seat options: Lie-flat seats allow passengers to recline the seat down to 180-degrees for comfortable sleeping, while some reclining seats in upgraded classes, known as angle seats, cause discomfort: "For Business and First class, the key feature is lie-flat seats, not ones that are on an angle," Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of travel information site ExpertFlyer.com. He says frequent flyers call those uncomfy angled ones 'wedgie seats' — for exactly the reason you think.
Andrew Shelton, Managing Director of global flight search and travel deals website Cheapflights warns passengers to take cautions of the other extreme, “The seats in front of an exit row and at the very back of the plane do not recline. Often those behind the exit have weird window configurations. Sitting by the galley can be loud as the crew prepares food and beverage and will often meet there during quiet periods on the flight.”
Where can I sit to guarantee an overhead bin? “While you may feel more bumps in rough air and have a long wait when disembarking, the rear of the plane can be less crowded," says Shelton. "For most airlines, you will board earlier too if you sit in the rear — a win if you want to make sure your carry-on luggage gets a spot." Something to bear in mind when picking your seats on that online chart.
Are some seats safer than others? According to a Time Magazine survey of US Federal Aviation Administration accident records dating back 35 years, middle seats in the rear of the aircraft had the best outcome during accidents. But this is hardly a guarantee. Realistically, there is no good or best place to sit on an aircraft in terms of injury prevention or survivability in an accident, explains Alison Duquette, FAA Office of Communications. “Each incident is unique and accidents are extremely rare.”
If there is an emergency, ExpertFlyer’s Chris Lopinto points to the emergency exit row: “The closer you are to any emergency row, the sooner you’ll get off the plane,” he said. But if you're actually in the exit row, it's a different story.
I love the extra room of the exit row, but what would I actually have to do in an emergency? Proximity to an exit will certainly help some passengers evacuate quicker — but those actually sitting next to an emergency exit window may be deemed an able-bodied person (ABP). That means if an emergency occurs and the captain calls for an evacuation, you will be responsible for helping with the process.
Depending upon the aircraft, type of emergency, and the flight attendants' needs, some passengers may be asked to open the emergency window and assist passengers out of the plane. Passengers sitting near an emergency exit door may be asked to help open a door during the evacuation — or, once the door is open, go to the bottom of the emergency exit slide and help people off and tell them to move away from the plane.
How can I get an empty seat next to me? “In general, people seem to like to be as far forward as they can,” says Shelton. “Not surprisingly, the seats in the rear of the plane and the middle seats are the last to be selected. Middle seat in a rear row is the last, last choice.” In other words: If you can put up with the bummers of the back section and you’re flying during a slow time of year (such as when school resumes in the fall), you could end up with that coveted unoccupied seat next to you.
I need to make a tight connection. Where should I sit to deplane quickly? An obvious answer, on the surface: “If you know you will have a tight connection, you can get where you are going much faster from a seat near the front,” says Shelton. But some passengers will bargain with those closer to the front of the aircraft to change seats.
While some fliers who are not in a hurry will happily relocate to a still-acceptable seat (example: aisle for aisle) others have taken bribes such as money or free cocktails. In a desperate situation, passengers can try asking passengers closer to the front to trade seats just for landing, but this only works if carry-ons aren’t stashed in an overhead bin in the back.
Can I avoid that painful pressure in my ears? Alas, there is no part of the cabin that will offer relief to passengers who struggle with ear-pressure issues — barotrauma, if we're being scientific. Says Dr Quay Snyder, President, CEO and co-founder of Aviation Medicine Advisory Service (AMAS): “The short answer is: everywhere on the plane is the same regarding ear popping, as the barometric pressure is the same,” Snyder says.
What about turbulence? Do you feel it less in certain seats? Opting for flights that use larger planes that fly at higher altitudes is a start. There is more good news for passengers who prefer to avoid bumps: sitting over the wings is smoother than sitting closer to the nose or tail, explains Dr Snyder.
How can I get served sooner? “[Food] service usually starts at the front of the cabin,” says Lopinto. “However, some airlines vary the service depending on whether the flight is flying east versus west or north versus south. For premium cabins, some airlines actually let you pre-order meals on their website.” Such specialty meals can be vegetarian, meet dietary needs (low-fat, gluten-free) or religious ones (kosher), and can be made specifically for children.
The front-to-back service can add to the disadvantage of sitting in the rear. “This can mean that the crew can run out of a popular item by the time they reach you in the back — although it’s generally only an issue on long-haul flights with included hot meal service,” says Shelton. In such cases, you might end up with a vegetarian or kosher meal that wasn't meant for you.
Some airlines, such as US-based Southwest, deliver beverage service by tray, so there are no carts in the aisle. Other airline service offers what crew members call a "starburst": Two flight attendants with trolleys meet in the middle of the plane then work their way to the galleys. While service will come quicker for passengers mid-plane, there is one caveat: There is no getting up to use the toilet, since the two service carts barricade the aisle.
I was working on a Boeing 727 using this type of service when a gentleman pushed me aside and tipped the heavy cart, spilling drinks. He was obviously in desperate need of the restroom. Lesson: Use the toilets in the airport or before service starts.
Where is the quietest part of the plane? Even before you consider factors like crying infants or boisterous chatters, the cabin of a plane can be a deafening place. Ambient noise can hit 105 decibels (dB) during take off, and settle to 85dB at altitude — as loud as a petrol-powered lawn mower. Although some passengers have told me they hate sitting near the forward galley because they can hear the crew chatting, Andrew Wong of SeatGuru recommends seats as far up front in the cabin as possible to avoid the loud aircraft engines. Even sitting towards the interior helps; aisle seats are several decibels quieter than window seats.
When requesting a seat change, always keep a pleasant attitude and smile on your face.
Are some airline seats cheaper than others? The task of purchasing airline seats can be daunting, and it's not your average store-brand vs name-brand comparison. “The economics of seat selection have changed dramatically in recent years,” said Andrew Shelton of Cheapflights. “Most airlines have added surcharges for the best seats or created new, more expensive classes or subcategories with names like Premium Economy or Extra Legroom. Additionally, an increasing number of airlines charge you to select your seat at the time of booking.”
That makes the task of pinpointing specific seats difficult — if not impossible. The best you can do is plan ahead, unless you actually want to get stuck in the back near the restrooms.
“Airfare pricing is more about fare class than specific seats and different airlines have different, and very fluid, pricing strategies,” continues Shelton. “A rule of thumb is, if you haven't paid extra for a premium seat, don't have frequent flyer status or didn't end up snagging one of the last, high priced seats on the flight, you will be vying for the basic economy seats in the middle and back of the plane.”
What can I do to change seats before my flight? For travelers who are leery about being stuck in the middle seat, a living, breathing travel agent (yes, they still exist) may be able to help guide the process. You can also self-serve on the internet: tap into the online system when early check-in begins to see if any last minute seats opened up.
Another choice is talking to an airline reservationist over the phone or a ticket counter agent at check-in, and as a last resort, a gate agent has the ability to reassign seats right up until boarding time. Tip: when requesting a seat change, always keep a pleasant attitude and smile on your face. As the old adage goes, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
While charm and chocolates may not guarantee a seat change, it certainly can't hurt. While you’re at it, bring another sweet treat for the seatmates on either side of you. You never can tell when the battle for the armrest will get ugly.
Beth Blair is a former flight attendant and a freelance writer.
If you would like to comment on this or anything else you have seen on BBC Autos, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Autos, Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.