Getting a good seat in coach is a hot topic among fliers these days. After a recent column on how to avoid that cramped seat (which ran March 25 in the Beacon Journal), more than 200 readers weighed in on the subject.
While many debated whether the Knee Defender, a device that blocks the seat in front of yours from reclining, should be used onboard, others offered helpful strategies of their own for landing a better seat.
Among their tips was a suggestion to peruse airline seat maps starting a few days before departure, when many carriers allow elite frequent fliers or full-fare coach passengers to upgrade to first or business class, depending on status, leaving behind prize coach seats.
Heather Murphy from Evanston, Ill., said she has landed an exit row “for nearly every flight” by taking what she can get at the time of booking and then logging onto the airline website early in the morning on the day of departure.
Alternatively, she wrote, “I arrive 90 minutes early for a domestic flight, at which point the exit row seats have been opened but are usually not taken yet.”
Steve Gordon, co-founder of MySeatFinder, pointed out that his service will search airline seat maps and nab that exit row aisle or bulkhead seat for you. Users create accounts by signing up with their email addresses and entering their frequent flier account numbers and airline seating preferences. Then MySeatFinder, which works with several major domestic carriers, including American, Delta and United, operates behind the scenes to find a better seat for your coming flight and sends you an email when one is found.
“It’s a set-and-forget tool and it works,” Gordon wrote. The service is free for the “basic service” option, which covers eight flight legs or four round trips, and $29 a year for unlimited flights.
Other suggestions for securing a good seat include choosing nonpeak flight times. Bob Solomon, from Edmonton, Alberta, who noted that he is 6 feet, 3 inches, books flights that take off very early or late in the day because they tend to be less full and offer a little wiggle room onboard: “6 a.m. instead of 9 works, as does 3 p.m. instead of 11 a.m.,” he wrote.
Some readers said that when given the choice, foreign airlines are often the better bet when it comes to comfort. On a recent Swiss International Air Lines flight to Europe, Caryl Baron from Sandia Park, N.M., noted that “everyone on the flight appeared to have sufficient legroom. Strangely, the seats even seemed a wee bit wider than on U.S. airlines, and they had lumbar support and properly placed headrests.”
Several readers pointed out that actually booking your ideal seat doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Planes are sometimes switched because of maintenance or schedule changes.
Jan Bone, 81, from Palatine, Ill., for example, said she paid extra to sit in United’s Economy Plus section, which offers more legroom, after she had an artificial knee implant.
“United switched planes — and voila!” she wrote, “ — no economy plus on the substitute airplane. Fortunately, I had a brief layover in Denver, and the plane for the second half of the ride did have it.”
Now with two artificial knees, she said she is dreading a December trip she plans to make for her granddaughter’s college graduation.
“As a senior needing wheelchair assistance to get to gate and board, the idea of standard economy seating for a four-hour flight is frightening!” she wrote. “It took me more than a week after that earlier trip to get over the residual pain from the cramped seating.”
Many reader comments focused on the Knee Defender, a set of plastic wedges that slip onto the legs of your tray table and prevent the seat in front of you from tilting back.
Those against the Knee Defender contended that the ability to recline your airline seat was an inalienable right and that blocking someone from doing so was downright insolent.
“You have no right to restrict the movement of my seat,” wrote Brian J. Handel, a telephone switch engineer from Little Rock, Ark. “I might add that if you asked me nicely to not put the seat all the way back, I would probably accommodate you. Anything else on your part is just plain rude.”
Those in favor of the device, most of whom pointed out that they were 6 feet or taller, recounted how their knees had been repeatedly whacked by passengers who abruptly recline their seat without warning.
“I do it in self-defense of my knees,” said Chris Bolton, 53, from Boise, Idaho, who describes himself as 6 feet, 3 inches, “with iffy knees.”
He made his own knee defenders by using C-clamps that he attaches to the arms of his tray table to prevent the person ahead of him from reclining.
“No one has ever asked me to remove them. Any person who tries to move their seat back and can’t simply assumes that the seat is broken,” he said, adding that if asked, he would remove them, but would not be against pressing his shins into the seatback in front of him. “I justify using them by believing that pain avoidance is more important than additional [and marginal] increased comfort.”
Some readers questioned whether the device was legal. The Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t condone the Knee Defender but doesn’t outlaw it, either.
“In our view, anything that tampers with how a seat is supposed to perform — because they are supposed to perform in a certain way in an emergency — is not something that we support,” said spokeswoman Alison Duquette. “It’s really up to the airlines if they want to allow it to be used on their airplane.”
When I put the question to major U.S. carriers, few responded. Those that did ultimately left it up to passenger discretion.
“We expect our customers follow the basic rules of etiquette in-flight,” American responded in an email. “Our preference is that customers politely inform those seated in front of them if a reclining seat is causing an issue for any reason.”
To avoid animosity, several readers suggested asking the person in the seat ahead to refrain from reclining or to recline only slightly instead of resorting to extreme measures.
“The airlines have instilled a mentality wherein we all feel as though we have to fight for every inch,” posted a reader by the screen name L from Boston, “but there should be some sense of a social contract on airplanes.
“It’s unfair to actively prevent recline, especially on a red-eye flight, but there would be less temptation to do so if more people were selective and respectful about when and how they choose to recline.”