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,"
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 booking system.
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), you could end up with that coveted unoccupied seat next to you.
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 meal hot meal service,” says Shelton. In such cases, you might end up with a vegetarian or kosher meal that wasn't meant for you.
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.
(Beth Blair is a former flight attendant and a freelance writer.)