Flying long distances sucks—there’s no way around it. But if you’re especially tall (and not a CEO) economy class seats take the torture of travel to a whole new level. The average airline seat has a mere 32” of legroom. The more pricy “economy plus” seats have only 4-6” more, and you could pay up to $100 extra for the privilege of sitting in one.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 2008 that the two largest Canadian airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, had to provide a second seat to obese and disabled passengers at no additional cost. Ever since, Malcom Johnson, a 6’9” architect from Edmonton has been pushing Air Canada to make the same concessions for tall fliers by putting them in an exit row or “economy plus” seat at no charge. The Canadian Transportation Agency informed Johnson that his height did not qualify as a “disability” and he would be given no special accommodation.
Now, I’m not arguing that height is a disability (in fact, in many situations it’s beneficial), but as 6’9” flier Everard Strong told CNN, “there are many, many ways for you to change your weight, but you cannot change your height.” I agree with Strong that airlines don’t necessarily need to retrofit special seats for tall fliers, but should give them first dibs on exit rows and bulkhead seats.
But what should be the height cut-off for “tall?” Will tall fliers need doctor’s notes to verify that their legs are in fact too long to fit in standard seats? Is it a fliers “right” to have enough legroom (or be able to recline their seat even if the person behind them is tall)? Airlines coping with overweight passengers have been grappling with questions like these for years. The debate rages on in Slate and elsewhere.
Sites like SeatGuru and SeatExpert publish the layout of major carriers’ seating to give you a better idea of which seats are roomiest on which airlines. You should also be mindful of which airlines generally tend to offer more space. JetBlue, Virgin, and Southwest give you a little more leeway, while United, American, and discount lines like Spirit are by far the stingiest.
Hopefully, airlines will eventually stop trying to cram more and more people into each cabin—at the expense of their limbs. In the meantime, we have to grin and bear it (and try to upgrade our seats).