Flying Coach Doesn't Have to (Totally) Suck: Airlines With the Best Economy Class Seats

coach-class
coach-class

Put me in coach! (Photo: fStop Images — Halfdark/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images)

When you think about it, there’s really something primal about all the recent incidents of air passengers fighting over their recline space during flights. Even in the deepest reaches of the animal kingdom, creatures of the wild fiercely guard their territory, bitterly locking horns with any interloper who dares encroach on their domain. Whether it’s in the wild or 30,000 feet up, whether it’s your spawning ground or the space between your knees and the seat in front of you, it’s the same for creatures of all species: Your territory must be protected at all costs.

Related: Travel Rant: You’ve Got to Fight for Your Right to Recline on Airplanes 

Unfortunately, for the species class known as Flyerius econimus (aka  economy/coach class flyers), their habitat is getting smaller, especially when you consider the industry-standard legroom measurement, seat pitch (the distance from any point on one seat to the same point on the seat in front). “Seat pitch on airlines overall has shrunk from 32-33 inches to 31 inches, with some low-cost carriers coming in at 28 inches,” says Kevin Carter of SeatGuru, a site that lets travelers pick the ideal seats for their flights using reviews and comparison charts. ”Some fliers are feeling more of a squeeze,” Carter says.

what-is-seat-pitch
what-is-seat-pitch

Seat pitch is how legroom is frequently measured. More is better. (Illustration: Yahoo Travel)

The economy situation is better on foreign-based airlines. “Asian and Middle Eastern carriers put us to shame,” says Chris Lopinto of ExpertFlyer.com (which has launched a Seat Alert system that notifies you when a better seat on your booked flight becomes available). Lopinto says foreign carriers fly longer, more expensive routes, meaning they don’t have the financial pressure to cram in as many bodies as possible. Not so with U.S.-based carriers. “U.S. domestic flights are mostly shorter-haul flights,” Lopinto says, which means airlines have to schedule more flights packed nose-to-tail with passengers. “So in economy, comfort isn’t a top priority for airlines,” Lopinto says.

Still, there are airlines, even in the U.S., where you can fly economy without feeling like you’re strapped inside a Fiat glove compartment with 200 of your closest friends. So Yahoo Travel, with the help of our experts, brings you the airlines with the best economy (or coach) class offerings — where services are decent, and, more important, you won’t feel the need to get all “wild kingdom” to protect your space. Here they are (in no particular order):

Virgin America

virgin-america-economy
virgin-america-economy

Virgin America: an economy class act (Photo: Virgin America)

As far as U.S. based-airlines go, Sir Richard Branson’s airline is an economy class act. SeatGuru cites Virgin America's generous seating sizes (some of its flights have a seat pitch of 32 inches, while others go up to a roomy 38 inches; the seat width is around a not-too-shabby 17.7 inches), as well as its AC and USB connections and audio/video on-demand service at every coach class seat. Wi-Fi is also available on all planes. 

Related: Are Airlines About to Turn Off Our In-Seat TVs?

One SeatGuru user raves about Virgin America: “The seats are great. Mood lighting, music when boarding, the in-flight entertainment system is FANTASTIC.” Another says: “The leather seats make the width more tolerable, simply because you don’t bottom out. Legroom is reasonable compared to other domestic airlines, and IFE [n-flight entertainment] is pretty decent… Overall, great for a trans-con flight.”

How popular is Virgin America’s flying experience among the masses who fly coach? When Yahoo Travel compiles its semimonthly list of the meanest comments passengers have tweeted to/about airlines, Virgin America is consistently one of the hardest airlines to find complaints about.

Related: 20 Nastiest Things People Have Tweeted to Airlines This Month, Part II

JetBlue

jet-blue-economy
jet-blue-economy

JetBlue’s coach class game is tight; good thing the seating isn’t. (Photo: JetBlue)

Like Virgin America, JetBlue gets good reviews from experts and economy class flyers. SeatGuru reports that the pitch on JetBlue planes is typically 32 inches and on some planes goes up to between 37 and 41 inches.

Passengers notice the difference. One SeatGuru user comments: ”Compared to other airlines, these seats offer the greatest width and legroom, as well as comfort. For that reason, I choose this airline whenever possible.” DIRECTV is available via its in-seat monitors, and there’s XM Satellite Radio on most aircraft.

Hawaiian Airlines 

hawaiian-airlines-economy
hawaiian-airlines-economy

If you gotta fly coach to Hawaii, this is the airline on which to do it. (Photo: Jonny Clark/TheDesignAir)

Hawaiian Airlines’ Airbus A330 planes help make the transoceanic flight to America’s 50th state comfy for its coach passengers, with up to 32 inches of pitch and a seat width of about 18 inches. “Hawaiian Airlines — they do it right,” says ExpertFlyer.com’s Chris Lopinto.

American Airlines

american-airlines-economy
american-airlines-economy

If you’re flying economy class between New York’s JFK Airport and L.A. or San Francisco, look for American Airlines’ A321. (Photo: American Airlines)

We wanted to include at least one of the United States’ Big Three Airlines on this list. Lopinto didn’t hesitate to offer his vote: the American Airlines Airbus A321, which American uses for its major transcontinental routes. “If you’re flying between New York’s JFK Airport and Los Angeles or San Francisco in coach, this is the preferable plane to be on,” Lopinto says. “You don’t feel like a sardine because there aren’t as many coach seats.”(36 coach seats, to be exact; check out SeatGuru’s map.) He notes that when its seats recline, the bottom slides forward, preserving the knee space of the person behind you. 

INTERNATIONAL AIRLINES

As we said, you’ll likely find a better economy class experience on one of the major international carriers than on your average U.S. airline. Here are a few standouts:

Porter Airlines Bombardier Q400 

porter
porter

A rare find: good seating on a short-hop plane (Photo: Windsor Star)

This Canadian airline gets a thumbs-up from Lopinto for its unheard-of roominess for a small short-hop aircraft. “Even for a small plane, its 34-inch pitch is impressive,” he says.

Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300

Out of a lot of great Asian carriers, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific has one of the best economy class experiences. (Photo: Cathay Pacific)

There’s one area where you shouldn’t buy American, says Lopinto, and that’s if you’re taking a coach class flight to Asia. “If you’re flying to Asia, choosing an Asian-flagged carrier will give you a much better flying experience than a U.S-flagged option,” he says. Lopinto singles out Cathay Pacific’s Boeing 777-300 planes. They have “18.5 inches of seat width, 32 inches of pitch, with great cabin service and personal entertainment in every seat,” he says. 

Qatar Airways Boeing 777

qatar-airways-economy
qatar-airways-economy

Mood lighting aids the relaxing atmosphere on Qatar Airways. (Photo: Qatar Airways)

"Awesome" is how Lopinto describes Qatar Airways Boeing 777's economy class seating. He raves, “19 inches of seat width plus 33 inches of pitch.” He also recommends using this airline for hops to Europe as well.

Emirates Airbus A380 

emirates-economy
emirates-economy

Economy on Emirates gets high marks. (Photo: Frans Zwart/Flickr)

We know we said this list was in no particular order. But if it were, Emirates' economy class seating, especially in its Airbus A380, would be an easy #1. “A really nice plane on a really nice airline,” says Lopinto, noting its 33-to-34-inch seat pitch. But, he says, “the service puts it over the top.” Yahoo Travel’s Editor/Flyer-in-Chief, Paula Froelich, agrees. “The economy meals I’ve had on Emirates have been better than 70 percent of the meals I’ve had in New York City restaurants,” she says. 

No one’s pretending that an economy class seat on any airline is anywhere close to the luxury experience you can get in business or first class. And even if you go with a particular airline, finding a good economy class flight can still be hit or miss. “Every airline has 10 different airlines configured in 10 different ways,” Lopinto says. Research your flight thoroughly online on sites like SeatGuru and ExpertFlyer.com. Lopinto also says you’ll likely find better economy seats on newer or recently overhauled planes (“Wi-Fi and seat-back entertainment are good signs” of a new or newly refurbished plane, he says). 

So if you pick the right airline and do your homework, flying coach doesn’t have to be such a savage experience.  

WATCH: Flying Singapore Airlines in First Class for an Hour Ruined My Life

Let Yahoo Travel inspire you every day. Hang out with us on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.