For Martha Wade Steketee, 47, a gold-level frequent flier, the quest for the perfect seat began in earnest four years ago, after a grueling flight home from Paris. Knowing what an ordeal long flights can be, the research associate in the Arlington (Va.) office of the National Center for State Courts had nabbed a front-row economy seat, where service is usually more prompt and a quick exit on arrival is assured.
What should have been a comfortable trip became a nightmare when Steketee realized she was opposite the restrooms. "I was at one with my fellow passengers the entire flight," she says. "That experience underscored for me the need to know where the bathrooms, kitchen, and crew galley are located."
With more people flying, reduced services and seat widths, and computerized reservations that seem to fill every seat, it's tough to fly in style -- let alone in comfort. Everybody has a story about a plane seat from hell: the one that wouldn't recline, had zero legroom, or was in the dreaded "sea of seven" middle row. Clearly, not all coach seats are created equal.
To cope, more travelers are taking advantage of their airline's Web sites to select a seat before ever setting eyes on the gate agent. Most major U.S. airlines offer that function for those who book reservations online or are members of frequent-flier programs. That takes much of the guesswork out of flying and, when middle seats are unavoidable, prepares travelers for the inevitable squeeze.
But the savviest leisure travelers and road warriors are turning to specialists for information that goes far beyond the simplistic aisle-or-window layouts offered online. One of the most popular is SeatGuru.com, which gives detailed seating plans for 25 airlines based in the U.S. and overseas. Better yet, the site dishes up frankly worded annotations on good, bad, and average seats in coach, business, and first class -- mostly based on tips from the frequent fliers who make up the site's fan base and contribute hundreds of suggestions a month. "We get a lot of people who say: 'I don't know why I'm telling you, but this is the best seat on the plane,"' says Susan Daimler, vice-president of the Seattle company, whose husband, Matthew, began the site as a hobby in 2001.
SeatGuru spells out, for example, which coach seats on Continental Airlines' (CAL ) 767s have power-port access for laptops (rows 16-23) or where those "trick" bulkhead seats with immovable armrests are installed on Northwest Airlines' (NWAC ) A330 jumbo jets (avoid rows 10 and 29).
CAT OUT OF THE BAG
Of course, the definition of a good seat varies by passenger. Some people would rather have a stiff-backed seat with a built-in entertainment console than one with a generous pitch and no movie options. For those with longer legs, SeatGuru notes that row 9 on the Embraer 135, American Airlines' (AMR ) workhorse for short hops, has extra legroom. "It's letting everybody in on secrets only platinum-level frequent fliers would have known before," says Wendy Perrin, consumer editor at Condé Nast Traveler. Even so, many airlines set aside choice seats for their top customers.
SeatGuru is updated weekly and funded by advertising revenue. Recent additions include Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways. Sites with similar information include UK-Air.net for European airlines and SmartTravelAsia.com in Asia.
Some shortcomings: Not all carriers are covered, and the amount of information on some types of planes can be limited, especially for newer aircraft. But SeatGuru's Daimler says more information is being added all the time. She recently flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C., just to review United Airlines' (VALAQ ) new E-70 jet plane. Her discovery: The seats in row 18 don't recline at all, "and are very close to the lavatory."
As airlines cut back on service, a good seat can make all the difference between a relaxing trip and an ergonomic disaster. Of course, even the best seat can be uncomfortable when flying on an empty stomach. So before boarding, make sure to check out the menus, pictures, and comments at AirlineMeals.net. Of course, you can always pack a lunch. But you can't bring a seat along with you.
By Chester Dawson