For as much attention as it gets, you’d think that being comfortable on a flight all comes down to legroom. We may stress over every quarter inch of pitch—but there is another factor to flight comfort that’s not nearly considered enough: seat width.
Whereas a plane with tight legroom may mean pulling up our knees and scrunching in our legs for a cramped flight, it’s just not possible to “suck in” hips in order to sit into a too-small seat pan. Nonetheless, it’s a seat metric that continues to shrink as airlines buy newer, more streamlined planes and cram more seats into older jets.
Fortunately, there is a seat width minimum of sorts: According to FAA regulations, a child restraint system (CRS) used on airplane seats may measure up to 16 inches wide, so seats must at least accommodate for them. So even though sitting next to a crying baby may not make for the most pleasant flight, travelers do have small children to thank for barring airlines from slimming their seats too much.
Currently, all U.S. airlines go beyond that federal minimum width, but some seats are much roomier than others. Here are the airlines in the U.S. with the widest seats in economy.
Southwest Airlines: 17.5
With 17.5 inches of standard economy seat width, Southwest isn’t actually the widest seat out there. There are two solid reasons why we’ve shifted the airline to the top of our ranking, however. Hear us out:
First, in 2015 when Southwest announced the layout of the Boeing 737 MAXs they’d begin flying in 2017, the airline stole headlines with the claim that they’d have what would be, as Southwest’s Chief Commercial Officer Bob Jordan said at the time, the “widest economy seats available in the single-aisle 737 market,” at 17.8 inches. Committing to that number was bold for Southwest, and against the trend, as every other airline ordering Boeing 737 MAXs were using the opportunity to introduce slimmer seats.
Secondly, Southwest has the most generous policy for “customers of size” in the industry for passengers who might need to buy an extra seat for more space. Where other airlines require customers to advance purchase a second seat if they require more space, Southwest recommends purchasing a second seat for their planning purposes, but you’ll get that money back after you fly if you contact them for the refund; it is not automatic. Or, should you be willing to chance it, purchase just one seat and wait until you’re at the gate to chat with a customer service agent where, according to the policy, “if it’s determined that a second (or third) seat is needed, you’ll be accommodated with a complimentary additional seat.” Naturally that’s a gamble as it’s based on availability. But for customers needing that extra space, the opportunity for a second or even a third seat makes all the difference. And, with three seats, that’s 53.4 inches of width for your comfort.
JetBlue Airways and Silver Airways: 18 inches
In straight measurements, JetBlue Airways takes the top spot for widest seats just as they do for average economy legroom among U.S. domestic airlines.