This is the first in a series of blog posts on tips for flyers.
Why might this post be useful to you?
Seat comfort is important, especially on long flights. A more comfortable seat can be a big help to make the flight more enjoyable.
Airlines have different seat layouts (called configurations) for different aircraft types (eg the layout for a 737 is different to the layout for a 747), and sometimes a single aircraft type can also have different layouts (eg Qantas currently have half a dozen layouts for 747 aircraft). Different airlines have different layouts (eg Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa have different layouts on 747 aircraft).
This post covers how to find the seat layout on your flight, and how to select a good seat and avoid a bad seat. It also covers some useful tools for travellers that are related to seat maps, how to use them, and some limitations.
Seat map type 1 - configuration
The first type of seat maps are those showing seating configurations. Many airline websites have seatmaps available online, although in some cases airlines have multiple seating configurations for the same aircraft type, when it can be difficult to deduce which applies for a given flight. An example is given below from British Airways.While these may show the seat layout, they generally do not provide much information on the best and worst seats, other than by location of emergency exit rows, toilets and galleys. Some airlines show the seat pitch, but many do not.Seat pitch is the distance between the same part of the seats but one row apart, and thus is an indication of legroom.
More useful configuration maps
There are some websites that provide much more useful information to assist travellers in selecting good seats and avoiding bad seats. Two examples are Seatguru and SeatExpert. These sites are easy to use and generally reliable, but do not cover minor airlines and may take some time to fully update for new configurations.
These sites allow you to work out which seats you want, or want to avoid, based on your own criteria (for instance some people wish to be a distance from the galley to avoid noise whereas others have a stronger preference to be as forward as possible). However, the sites do not tell you which seats are free on a particular flight or allow for factors such as whether or not you might get a row to yourself.
Seat map type 2 - available and unavailable seats
All airlines that offer online check-in, and some that offer manage my booking, display seat maps with seats marked off as available or unavailable (and in some cases as missing due to being reserved for a codeshare partner if booked on the operating airline or vice versa). Sometimes some seats are marked as preferential, which means only passengers who qualify can select those seats. Qualification for preferential seats may depend on airline frequent flyer status, paid club membership, fare paid, or possible a surcharge.
However, even when these type of seat maps are not available at the airline website it may still be possible to access via a CRS website such as checkmytrip.
For information on CRS websites including which one to use for which airlines, please see my previous blog post on airline CRS.
Where you can online check-in or request seats before check-in opens, simply have the other seat map (eg SeatGuru or SeatExpert) open in another window. With many airlines you can also call to select a seat (but not all airlines do this eg Qantas domestic). Failing that, you could take a note of good seats and ones to avoid and ask which seats are available at check in.
Seat availability fallacy
It is commonly thought that a seat availability map showing lots of unallocated seats indicates an empty flight or low load. This is not generally correct. Some airlines do not allow passengers to pre-select seats. Or they may allow pre-selection only for half of passengers in order to maintain flexibility in seating families and groups together. Even when airlines do allow seat pre-allocation, many passengers simply do not bother.
The converse is also a fallacy - that a seat availability map implies a full flight. It might, but is not necessarily so. Airlines may block off sections of seating for a potential group sale, or if they think another flight may be cancelled. They may also block seats for their codeshare partners to allocate (eg on LAN flights between Santiago and Auckland/Sydney some seats are specifically for LAN passengers and some for Qantas passengers).
I'll cover some other tools which provide a better indicator of whether a flight may be full or empty (and why this matters) in another post.