Remember the good old days when planes flew half-full and we regularly got to stretch out across a row of seats?
You’d get onboard and start scoping out the rows around you, ready to pounce on some extra space the minute the flight levelled off.
Sadly, airlines got better and better at yield management, or matching the number of available seats to demand, and those empty rows are now a lot harder to come by.
It definitely feels as though flights have become more crammed and that’s backed up by figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Average ‘passenger load factors’ for international flights have jumped several percentage points over the past six years, while average loadings on domestic flights have increased from around 76 per cent to nearly 81 per cent.
But as much as we like to whinge about being squished, the figures show our flights are nowhere near as full as those in other regions.
For international flights, the Asia Pacific region has the second lowest average load factor in the world, with only those travelling from Africa enjoying more spare seats.
Spare a thought for travellers in North America, where the average loading on an international flight is over 83 per cent, compared to about 77 per cent on Asia Pacific flights.
It’s a similar story on domestic flights, with Australian flights recording one of the lowest average load factors for 2013.
Only travellers in India, Japan and Russia fared better, while North Americans were again the most cramped at more than 85 per cent average loading.
Anyone who’s taken a domestic flight in the US will know it’s not much fun, with the space issue compounded by lots of large passengers. (I’d say we definitely get a better deal when it comes to cabin crews, too, but that’s another matter.)
Of course, we don’t just fly within our own region and the figures are not much comfort if you’re in the middle seat with nowhere to put your elbows.
Or with someone else’s stomach resting on your lap…
Strategise for space
There are things you can do to boost your chances of getting some extra space, should there be any available.
For domestic flights, have a good look at the seating maps when you book.
If there’s a passenger in the window seat and you take the aisle seat, or vice versa, the middle seat will be one of the last to be filled, especially if it’s towards the back of the plane.
If you’re travelling as a couple and there are plenty of empty seats, book the window and aisle and hope the middle seat remains empty; if someone does get it, they’ll no doubt be happy to trade.
For longer flights, it never hurts to ring the airline and ask if the flight is full.
They usually won’t tell you exactly how many seats are free, but might be able to find you a bit more space, especially if you’re willing to be further back in the plane.
If you have the time and inclination, you can look up seat availability for some flights on the website Flight Stats.
The site doesn’t cover all airlines but does show roughly how many seats are free in each class.
You can also try asking at check-in.
Being friendly really does make a difference – check-in staff cop their fair share of rude and demanding people – and I’ve often managed to get extra space this way.
The ‘best’ seats
If the flight is fairly full and there’s no chance of having a spare seat next to you, the best you can aim for is your choice of window or aisle and general location in the plane.
Many tall travellers try to get a seat in the exit row, where there is generally more leg room, and other travellers swear by the ‘bulkhead’, which is the row of seats at the front of the cabin.
I like the bulk head for the fact that you don’t have anyone reclining into your space, but sometimes the legroom is compromised.
If you’re tall and rely on stretching your feet under the seat in front, the bulkhead might be the worst seat for you.
Not to mention that the bulkhead is where baby bassinettes are located…
The best place for leg room is a ‘bulkhead’ without a wall in front.These do tend to be near toilets or galleys and are often where restless passengers gather to chat during a long flight, but you can stretch your legs right out.
You can find airline seating maps by aircraft type or flight number at Seat Guru.
You might do the research and end up next to the toilet anyway, but knowing what you want is a good start.
Do you have a strategy for getting a good seat on a flight? Post your tips and comments below.