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Squeezing the Most Out of Economy Seats

The jerk in front of you keeps bouncing backwards in his fully-reclined seat, jamming the seatback into your kneecaps. The frustrated chain-smoker on your left growls every time you lean on the armrest. The passenger on your right constantly reaches under her seat and rummages through her carry-on bag. More and more, such are the perils of business travel across Asia-Pacific. According to the International Air Transport Association, more than 70% of business travelers in the region now fly economy class on both short and long-haul flights. And if you've ever been assigned the dreaded middle/middle (middle seat in the center row) on a long-haul flight, you know how dire a fate that can be.

Lack of space defines the economy-class experience. You can bring your own water and some favorite snacks, but you can't bring your recliner. Seat pitch--the distance between a given point on one seat and the same point on the next--varies from airline to airline, but the industry standard is a miserly 78 cm. The space has shrunk nearly 10 cm in the past decade as airlines jammed seats together and added extra rows to save on costs. Charter airlines and others packed seats even closer, as tight as 70 cm. (Some airlines--such as United, British Airways and Virgin--do offer an upscale economy seat with more legroom.) The cramped conditions aren't merely uncomfortable: some doctors say they can be downright dangerous. Lack of mobility can cause blood circulation to your legs to drop by 50%, allowing possibly fatal blood clots to form in your under-stimulated legs.

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So how is a working stiff to survive? Knowing your enemy can help. When it comes to comfort, not all aircraft are created equal. Among narrow-body planes, the Airbus A 320 offers the most space. Its cabin is 17 cm wider than that of the Boeing 737, and the extra room translates into slightly wider seats and center aisle. Wide-body aircraft are obviously more spacious. But just because a jet is larger doesn't mean your seat will be more comfortable. The 747's economy class, for instance, is usually laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration, which means that four seats in every row are middle seats. The smaller 767 is laid out in a 2-3-2, which means only one seat per row is a middle seat. The 777 is generally acknowledged to be the most luxurious of the wide bodies; its coach seats, with 48 cm of space between the armrests, are wider than most.

Booking the right seat can also make a difference. Bulkhead seats--those behind the dividers between different cabins--offer much greater legroom and no seatbacks to fill your lap. Emergency-exit-row seats offer similar advantages. Assignments to avoid include the non-reclining seats placed in front of the emergency-exit row on some aircraft, and seats toward the back of the MD-80 and the DC-10, where rear-mounted engines can be deafening.

Airlines tend to reserve the best seats for frequent flyers and travelers paying full-fare economy, so it's important to stick with one airline or one alliance in order to build up status. Landing a specific seat or an upgrade is more likely if the airline knows you are a regular customer. Most corporate travel policies restrict what class you fly in, but not the carrier you choose. If your travel manager complains that this all sounds like a lot of work, gently remind him or her about the blood clots.

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