There’s Nothing Wrong With Flying Economy, Just Choose Your Airline Wisely

Growing up I used to fly long haul coach all the time. I even flew American Airlines in back to Australia the last time they served Sydney — via Honolulu with a DC-10. Cross country coach trips were what I grew up with, with my dad in California and living with my mother in New York.

Once I discovered frequent flyer miles and elite status I did my best to make sure I avoided flying in back. And since my international travel is largely for leisure I’ve had the flexibility to be able to ensure that’s up front.

Nonetheless I never forget my ‘roots’ and appreciate how fortunate I am to ‘turn left’ as often as I do.

Etihad A380 First Apartment

Matthew flew a United Boeing 767 from Milan to Newark in coach and came away concluding “Economy class is just fine, let’s not lose sight of that.”

I’m going to challenge that conclusion a bit. Economy class can be fine, depending on the airline and the aircraft.

The traditional domestic premium cabin configuration on a 767, before airlines started going with direct aisle access, was 2-2-2. Six across up front, while coach frequently remained just seven abreast (2-3-2). What’s more, many airlines see 767s as close to retirement and haven’t invested in new interior products for economy which is a good thing because you usually get a bit more legroom in back as a result.

In general 767 coach products are better than what you’ll find on the 787 or many 777s. Even there though the airline matters, Delta seats nine-across on a Boeing 777 while American, United, Emirates, Air France and others seat ten-across.

Delta offers amenity kits, welcome drinks and hot towels, and mix and match dining in back.

Singapore Airlines has probably the best economy product in the world with meals very similar to what they serve in premium economy, and little touches like extra legroom, a cup holder, and a foot bar.

Singapore Airlines Economy

I recently spent a few hours in a Qantas coach seat onboard on of their Airbus A380s. I came away amazed by the experience. The seat itself was comfortable and well padded. I can’t say enough about the importance of padding, something that many modern ‘slimline’ seats designed to squeeze half an inch of space per row and make it possible to add more seats to the plane compromise on.

Qantas A380 Economy

I fly Southwest Airlines all the time. There’s nothing wrong with Southwest coach for a few hours, even with the new seats on their (currently grounded) Boeing 737 MAX which are stiffer. Thanks to a restrictive pilot contract they aren’t squeezing more seats into their planes, and there’s enough legroom for me to open my laptop and work even without a so-called ‘economy plus’ or ‘main cabin extra’ product.

Southwest has a motto ‘we do short better’ and Southwest coach is great for up to 3 hours or so. I wouldn’t love to fly them to Hawaii, but I’ll gladly jump on their Washington National – Austin flight since they’re the only one that can legally fly it and it saves me a connection.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. But not okay for a 15 hour flight to Australia? Considering a return in paid econ end of the year for the AS miles.

  2. I flew UA in a bulkhead Y seat on a 757 from MAD-IAD last month. And you know what? It was actually pleasant.

    Several years ago, I used to be an elite on NW and they would let you reserve any available coach seat at time of booking. I few Y in a bulkhead seat from the US-Europe, Asia-US, and a few other places. It was fine.

    My elite days are behind me (thank God?) but if there’s one thing I can say about this move to “ala carte” pricing… I love the ability to pay a “nominal” upcharge for an exit row or bulkhead. Carriers actually get my business when they make it easy (and economical) for me to buy those seats.

    Side note, sort of related: LAN had tried to get into the LIM-IAD market with an old 767. That service only lasted a year or two. IMHO, one of the biggest problems was that they made it very difficult to pre-book an exit row/bulkhead seat. Plus the plane was a sardine can, and not set up in a way that allowed people to move across aisles. I booked a revenue Y ticket and then tried to get the extra legroom seating. While I succeeded, it was a royal PITA to accomplish that task. On top of that, the bulkhead in the center part of the cabin was the one spot with enough space for people to move across aisles. So for 8 hours, my scenic view was everybody’s crotch or behind as they crossed in front of me.

    I did one trip with LAN, and am not surprised they left the market.

  3. According to the ‘ADA’ it shouldn’t be necessary for a handicapped person to pay more for a bulkhead seat.

  4. I’m flying Qantas from Hong Kong to Brisbane return in January. Do you have any advice for seats or if Qantas do upgrades to business ? I would be happy to pay for premium economy if it’s not too much.

  5. I fly to Oz on a 2 year schedule. I think it should be a illegal to how the airlines pack people into economy. I try to save FF miles to upgrade, it makes a world of difference after a 14 or 16h flight.

    As a regular economy buyer, I am tired of getting nickeled and dimed for everything. Over 3 hours and you need a can opener to get out of your seat.

    It will only change when the flying public has had enough and airlines have pushed too far, but alas, that day will never come, with the cheap airlines going well the majors will only look at them and say how can we screw our customers even more.

  6. Do you get a bonus for people signing up with wordpress? Kinda getting tired of having to sign up for all these accounnts I only used seldom

  7. I do try and avoid long haul economy on slimline seats. Will select another carrier to avoid them.

  8. I fly LAX-JFK a few times a year. Since I fly economy (or basic economy) earning miles is no longer a factor, but now the choice of airline is as their products differ.
    Jet Blue (for example) has a pitch of 33″, allows you to pick your seat selection at the time of reservation, serves unlimited snacks and the service is great with frequent departures. Odds are you will get the lowest fare at you preferred time of departure.
    Delta still flies 767 and your article is correct. Delta serves complimentary meals with a wide complimentary choice of entertainment. Since its a 767, even though I am in Basic Economy I am always given an aisle seat upon check in.
    Alaska are 737’s or airbus 310, not my favorite and only two or three daily departures and American is overpriced with none of the fore mentioned amenities.

  9. Did you know that majority of people in the entire earth always fly economy on international flights? Well, of course there’s nothing wrong and it’s not even close to be wrong. It’s just this tabloid is out of touch telling us normies just choose the right airlines.

  10. I was pleasantly surprised by virgin Australia from LAX-MEL. The 777 was rather comfy 9 across in coach and meals and drinks were decent. For $500 RT you really can’t complain.

  11. @Gary, there is something else to consider: the direction in which you are flying, and the time of day (or night) of the flight.

    I never have a problem flying coach if I am leaving Europe in the daytime and arriving in North America in the daytime, if the seats are comfortable.and the service is decent. It’s the red-eye flights that can be bothersome, and that is when I try for a minimum of E+ seating on a better airline.

  12. Caveat–unlike the US3 and normal foreign carriers, Spain’s Iberia will not reimburse the seat charge paid at time of ticketing if you move-up to the next available class. So, Y+ to J you lose $37 each way between the US and Madrid.

  13. The older I get, the tighter the pitch, and with the 90-second total evacuation rule seeming to be a fantasy when I look at a full cabin, the more claustrophobic I’ve become, and the less I even want to climb on a plane these days… Am I the only million-miler who’s developing a fear (and dislike) of flying?

  14. Nope, been flying since the late 70s and its just a pain now. Airline are no longer giving a damn about their customers. Its gotten so bad that during any delays you need to record what they say over the PA so that they cannot come back and say its a weather delay and thus you get nada. I have had it happen more than once.
    FF miles used to be something you could use as a treat once in awhile, now even the lowest tier of status means absolutely nothing. Try to get a seat and as long as you are a ways out no issue (internationally) Biggest pain is that the hike in FF miles just to go anywhere, 100k to get RT in the US, they are out of their minds.
    Pretty soon after a few more trips to Oz I will be done traveling. Its just all so much of a pain in the rear, the people that are manning the plane just wish it would get over with too.

  15. I think Saudia economy class with Bistro dining is the best economy class experience ever

  16. @ Gary. Yep “we do shorter better” was a SWA slogan but the unofficial one was “see an airport and land.”
    I’ve never heard that SWA is the only airline legally allowed to fly DCA-AUS Nonstop. What’s with that? Is that a holdover from the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 (Braniff route) and Sen. Jake Pickle?

  17. @One Trippe – they hold the only exemption to the 1250 mile perimeter rule on that route, meant to protect Dulles as the long haul airport in the region it actually delayed the development of Dulles as a hub by a decade since there were an overabundance of short haul flights out of National and fewer from Dulles you didn’t get connecting feed – and Dulles could support only the non-stops for which there was enough O/D traffic in the DC market. We keep the perimeter rule in some measure because United lobbies for it, to keep competition away from their IAD operation.

  18. With the possible exception of long haul flying on a 10-across 777, there is NEVER anything “wrong” with travelling in int’l economy class. It is almost ALWAYS the better value if you’re paying your own money and haven’t ginned up enough miles (or can’t find nonstop award seats) to fly for free up front. Int’l coach is usually somewhat cramped and rarely enjoyable, but it is never worth paying more than 2x to avoid it. Simple math.

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