“Seat pitch” is the distance between seat back to seat back. It’s not the same as legroom, exactly — you aren’t always getting the same legroom with the same seat pitch because some airlines use thicker and thinner seats — but it’s the most generally accepted proxy for legroom.
- The world standard for economy pitch has been 31 inches. That’s what US airlines have consistently offered in coach.
American Boeing 787 Economy
- “Economy plus”-style extra legroom seats usually offer about 34 inches of pitch
American Boeing 787 Main Cabin Extra
- Domestic first class runs 38-40 inches
American Boeing 737 First Class
- The ultra low cost carriers offer as little as 29 inches
There’s some variation on this. And legroom isn’t the only element of comfort. For instance, width matters too — a Boeing 777 with 9 abreast seating in coach is going to be more comfortable than one that’s 10-abreast.
It’s shocking to me that both Lufthansa and British Airways offer the same legroom in economy and business class for their intra-Europe flights. And that’s 30 inches, which is tighter than what the US majors offer in coach.
British Airways Club Europe
British Airways “Club Europe” is coach with a blocked middle seat and a cold meal tray. Plus lounge access and priority boarding, of course, which you receive with mid-tier elite status anyway.
British Airways Club Europe Lunch, London Heathrow – Paris Orly
A top British Airways sales executive once told me that ‘they lose money on Club Europe but their long haul business class customers expect something better than economy for their connections’ — in other words they believed that long haul was subsidizing short haul. In fact they had the economics of it backwards. They needed to offer a decent short haul product in order to attract long haul premium cabin flyers, and were thus just allocating the revenue wrong in coming up with their money-losing calculations.
I’m not tall, but 30 inch pitch means that I have to angle my laptop bag to get it under the seat. It’s not like my knees are butted up against the seat in front of me, but that’s hardly the only issue. The top of the seat ahead so close can be claustrophobic. (Though it means no underseat storage, it’s advisable to take the bulkhead in British Airways Club Europe because there’s more legroom.)
Luftansa’s new A320neo aircraft will offer 32 inch pitch in business class (not something to get excited about) and 29 inch pitch in coach. (HT: Head for Points) That’s like the ultra low cost carriers, though in some cases worse because Ryanair apparently offers 30 inches.
Lufthansa uses slimline seats (which I and many other passengers find uncomfortable) which take up less space and mean that legroom isn’t quite as bad as the pitch figure would suggest.
Not every European airline does this. Swiss offers mostly 34 inch pitch. Turkish Airlines offers 34 – 37 inch pitch for the most part on their short haul business fleet.
Nonetheless whenever I think about the lack of predeparture beverages in domestic first class, or long for the days when US airlines made more of an investment in first class meals than they do today, I think of intra-European business class and I’m suddenly grateful. Europhiles excuse the offerings by saying that most intra-European flights are short, but most domestic US routes are too (about half of American’s domestic route network is under 500 miles).