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For the most part, you have to go way beyond the airline brand to figure out how to get the roomiest seats and to avoid the big squeeze in economy class. Travelers need to drill down on the particular route and aircraft type to scope out the seat situation.

If you are among the millions of airline passengers who sit back at the gate when all those frequent flyers board early to snatch their seat upgrades or premium seats purchased for an additional fee, then here’s some advice for landing a roomy seat without having to shell out extra money: fly JetBlue or Virgin America.

If you fly either of these airlines in basic economy, your choice is a no-brainer from a comfort standpoint because all of their domestic flights have roomy seats and they are among the roomiest in the industry. That is, all of their seats have at least 33 inches of pitch, or have 32 inches of pitch and seat cushions more than 17.5 inches wide.

Of course, if you don’t fly to airports where JetBlue or Virgin America deploy their landing gear, then you are going to have to dig deeper to find comfy seats.

All fleets are not created equal

If you are interested in legroom and the ability to stretch a bit, then avoid Cape Air, Spirit Airlines and Allegiant because 100% of their domestic flights have tight seats with only 28-30 inches of pitch in basic economy.

With some carriers, including JetBlue, Virgin America, Cape Air, Spirit and Allegiant, it is easy to figure out whether to choose or avoid them based on their seats because they each operate only one aircraft type and seating is standard on every plane. However, when it comes to larger carriers such as American and US Airways — which fly myriad types of aircraft in multiple configurations — the decision-making becomes much more complex.

Routehappy, a New York-based startup building a flight-amenities search engine and social network, took a look at the U.S. airlines with the roomiest and tightest seats in basic economy on domestic routes in September 2012, and found that JetBlue, US Airways, and Virgin America were scheduled to have the most flights per day with roomy seats, while Delta, AirTran, and Frontier had the greatest number of flights with tight seats.

In between these airline leaders and losers were carriers such as Southwest, Alaska, and Sun Country, all with 100% of their flights featuring standard-size seats, as well as American (98%) and United (97%). Routehappy characterizes standard seats as having 31-32 inches of pitch, or below average seat cushion width of 17.5 inches or less.

But, there are several ways to look at the question.

Routehappy ranked the airlines with the roomiest and tightest seats by number of flights per day within the U.S., and secondarily looked at the percentage of flights within each airline.

“We thought it would be most relevant to flyers broadly to sort the airlines by number of flights a day with the roomy or tight seats because it gives a sense for the overall opportunity,” says Robert Albert, Routehappy founder and CEO.

Lots of US Airways flights but low percentage

Thus, although US Airways (229 flights) is a seeming leader and ranked second only to JetBlue (521 flights) in the number of flights per day featuring roomy seats, only 8% of US Airways’ flights had roomy seats.

And, Hawaiian Airlines, with only 36 flights per day featuring roomy seats, had a higher percentage (18%) of its own flights with comfy seats than did US Airways (8%).

While U.S. Airways is a leader in flights per day with roomy seats, it also is a leader in flights per day with tight seats.

US Airways (146 flights) ranked seventh among U.S. airlines by flights per day with tight seats, and these flights made up 5% of US Airways’ schedule in September.

Both sides of the aisle

American, Hawaiian, and US Airways all straddle the categories with their dual status as leaders in both the roomy and tight seats categories.

And, this points to the importance of focusing on aircraft type and route in choosing whether to fly a particular airline from a seat-comfort perspective when you aren’t interested in paying extra for the seat.

For example, while you should avoid US Airways and its Boeing 737-400 aircraft on its Fort Lauderdale (FLL) to Charlotte (CLT) route because of the tight seats, the US Airways Airbus A321 aircraft on the busy Charlotte (CLT) to LaGuardia (LGA) route “are a totally different story,” says Albert of Routehappy.

“The seats on the A321s are roomier with 32 inches of pitch and a generous 18 inches of width,” Albert says. “It will feel noticeably more comfortable to flyers.”

And, there are other plenty of other under-the-radar facts when it comes to mastering the seat-comfort issue.

United Economy p.s.

For example, although only 1% of United’s domestic flights in September were slated to have roomy seats in economy, among them are all the flights on its JFK to San Francisco (SFO)/Los Angeles (LAX) routes using Boeing 757 aircraft.

“Very few people know, for example, that United has a special service called United Economy p.s. [with up to 5 inches of extra legroom] that is all Economy Plus for the price of Economy,” Albert says. “It’s a hidden gem in air travel that mostly only United frequent flyers in NYC and SFO/LAX know about.”

There are a number of ways to keep tabs on ever-changing seat-comfort details, including using and, to a lesser extent, its iPhone app, as well as, and its iOS and Android apps, for example.

It’s always good to get a leg up on the airline seat situation.

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Tags: airline seats, in-flight, jetblue airways, virgin america

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