What Are You: Bulkhead or Non-Bulkhead?

Here’s the seatmap for a flight I just booked. You’ll see I selected an extra legroom aisle seat, and opted not to select the bulkhead row. This is an American Airlines MD80.

Bulkhead seats often have better legroom than even ‘main cabin extra’ or ‘economy plus’ types of seating. At a minimum you don’t have anyone reclining into your space. As a result, bulkhead seats are very popular.

On the other hand, I avoid bulkhead seats when I can for three reasons:

  1. They’re narrower. They usually have tray tables in the armrests, so the armrests don’t move.
  2. Carry on bags have to go in the overhead, not at your feet. That means you may need to board earlier to ensure you get convenient space.
  3. Since you can’t put any bags at your feet, larger electronics have to remain in the overhead for takeoff and landing. If you use a laptop you have to get up to get it, once it’s permissible to do so, instead of just grabbing it within arm’s length.

A whole separate issue of course is whether to take the side with 2 seats (which have smaller overhead bins above them) or 3 seats (where there’s a chance of an empty middle seat next to you)…

Do you choose or avoid bulkhead rows?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. I like the bulkhead, because there’s a 0% chance of the person in front of you reclining.

  2. Avoid, for the same reasons you mentioned, plus less legroom generally…I like to stretch my legs under the seat in front.

  3. I used to like bulkhead, but recently I’ve had challenges securing nearby overhead space. I’d rather give up the bulkhead than to have to swim upstream upon landing to retrieve my bags.

  4. I avoid bulkhead on longer flights because I cannot stretch out my legs. While there is much more room for your knees, there is actually less ‘footroom’.

    As for 2 vs. 3 seat side, I like the 2 seat side. One less person to deal with. with flights running as full as they are, the possibility of getting an empty seat next to me is becoming less and less.

  5. I generally avoid them except on E70/75. Those usually have a curtain divider so you can still store stuff under the F seat in front but get as much, if not more legroom than even in first.

  6. Many bulkhead seats allow for floor storage. If the bulkhead doesn’t go all the way down, there is floor storage. Plus, the aisle typically will allow one to slide belongings in the seat in front of you. I fly AA and UA primarily. So, your experience may differ.

    Narrow seats don’t bother me because I am not wide.

  7. I’m tall. I take the bulkhead for long flights. I’ve done some long enough flights on the old NW A332 – SIN-NRT-SEA, and DTW-FRA-DTW, and it was quite acceptable. I was surprised coach wasn’t miserable.

  8. As a mildly claustrophobic person, I value the bulkhead to avoid an attack. I’m sure the person in front of me wouldn’t appreciate my barfing on them.

  9. I like the bulkhead because it permits me to take my shoes and socks off and comfortably put my feet up on the bulkhead.

    Plus, I can clip my toenails – absolutely no way to get that done in a non-bulkhead economy seat.

  10. I basically only care about legroom, so it completely depends on the plane, as some have cutouts in the closets (some DL 757s in F), bulkheads without walls or on exit rows (some DL 757s in C), or just have a curtain (some as 737s in C).

  11. Anti-bulkhead. I like to have my personal item underneath the seat in front of me where I can access it.

    I’ve gotten away with keeping my personal item on the floor near my legs in a bulkhead seat, but, meh.

  12. I avoid the bulkhead when possible. The fact that it’s in the front and you need extra overhead space means there’s a significant risk of having your stuff behind you. Even getting your bags from two rows behind is a pretty big PITA when deplaning.

  13. I need that easy access to my laptop when flying. It’s not so much work as my hobbies (including programming) that I like to focus on while flying. I don’t care so much about being toward the front of the plane except that it means getting off earlier, which means being more likely to make a connection.

    That’s why I often end up in exactly the position you selected, Gary, or the window seat (I like windows!).

  14. Ah, the other advantage of being at the front is that on some flights (can’t remember which now), the front of the plane in economy were more likely to have power outlets.

    I’d love to be wrong about that, it’s just how I remember it.

  15. Been trying to decide on Delta A330-300 in Econ+ ATL to BCN. Bulkhead or seats in 2nd row behind it. Haven’t tried it. Any suggestions? I already paid for the upgraded seats. Thanks!

  16. Why no exit row? Exit row has the best leg room outside of F and on some flight the people in front of you are not allowed to recline. In flight with two exit rows pick the second set because the first one also has the no recline rule. I also like the exit row config where it’s 2 seat row and then 3 seat row. The window seat on the 3 gives you 2 seats worth of leg room with no one in front of you to recline and you still still put your bag under the seat in front of you.

  17. As someone who is both long and wide and flys 100+ times a year, economy seat selection is very near and dear to my heart.

    My Rules when I can avoid it

    1)No Bulkhead, the narrow seats are no fun.
    2)Aisle seat above all, I can lean a bit into the aisle if I’m sitting next to someone and it feels cramped.
    3)No window on a CRJ, seriously there is no shoulder room, it is awful.
    4)People don’t love em, but Embriars are wonderful. The small planes have 1×2 seating and I pick the 1 side and the big planes usually are configured for 18″ instead of 17″ and that makes a huge difference.
    5)MCE over exit rows mainly because ER usually have the table in the arm as well.

  18. Jfhscott, I see you working. Good one.
    On a recent 3 hr flight to ABQ, this 5’7″ dude, sitting in 1F immediately took off his shoes and stretched his tiny legs and feet as far up on the bulkhead as possible….where they stayed for the next 2 hours. Thankfully, he was wearing socks.

  19. I avoid the bulkheads if at all possible due to the reduced foot room in most cases. It’s the same reason why I no longer put my carry on under the seat in front of me. I’m of average height so the extra knee room in a bulkhead seat doesn’t benefit me, but I easily get cramps and other soreness if I can’t stretch out my legs. Some aircraft have cutouts in the bulkhead near the bottom, but I don’t pay attention enough to the layouts to remember exactly which aircraft on which airlines do. The narrower seat and fixed armrests don’t help. either.

  20. My husband is firmly Bulkhead and I am agnostic.
    I actually enjoy Bulkhead on 90% of our flights. On 10% I get a rigid FA who won’t let me keep my purse under the seat and makes me stow it.

  21. I avoid bulkheads even when I fly first. Not for the carry-on, but for the lack of legroom in bulkhead first.

  22. It really depends on the equipment. The United Airbus twins have cut-outs in the bulkheads which allow you to put your bag underneath (except sometimes on the aisle, which have equipment or blankets). Also has HUGE amounts of legroom. UA 737s are hit/miss – some have high cutouts, some have low cutouts. Also CR7 and E70/75 on all carriers I’ve seen are really good because the first row of coach basically has F in front, with storage space and plenty of legroom – except for the aisle on the port side, which has no seat directly in front. It is annoying to have to continually bump the guy next to you to access your tray table, but otherwise, I’m a narrow guy and the narrower seat doesn’t bother me.

    Otherwise, I tend to avoid bulkheads when I can, even in domestic F.

  23. Bulkhead – my husband has knee problems and bulkhead or exit rows are a necessity or else his knees lock up.

  24. Avoid. Unless an isle seat on a 757 by the boarding gate or in any plane that you has a curtain separator to F and can use F underseat space (DL MDs & 717s, all E17Xs etc)

  25. At 6’5″ if I can’t get reclining exit row, I jump on bulkhead when in economy.

  26. On AS, bulkhead every time (except for the 400’s). Otherwise, exit row. I’m 6’6 so foot space is as important as knee space. I also hate putting my computer in the overhead.

  27. @Jana don’t be so sure. I could share some links to Japanese barf porn but Gary might ban me. Note: said porn does wonders to keep nosy people from looking at your computer screen in public places.

  28. no bulkhead, for the same reasons, particularly seat width, unless it happens to be a curtain bulkhead where I can stretch my legs out under the first class seat in front of me. I generally use an iPad when in economy instead of a laptop so the electronics thing isn’t a big deal but having to juggle everything is a pain.
    I actually prefer window of the set of 3. My blatter is plenty sufficient to make it a 4+ hour flight so I would rather no one bother me.

    As far as overhead bag space, am I the only one that puts their bag overhead opposite of the side they are sitting in? Since I usually grab a window I like to be able to see where my bag is before I can grab it.

  29. Depends on the aircraft. There are a few that have excellent bulkhead room and you need to know which they are. Otherwise, bulkhead can be a real pain.

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