In my opinion, in Economy Class, the number one factor as to whether or not you will have a good flight is the amount of space you have.
This is especially true in the Coronavirus era, where distancing from other passengers is not only the most important thing from a comfort point of view, but also from a safety perspective.
My family of four was recently in Iceland (a beautiful country, and my first COVID trip), and flew back to the US on an Icelandair 737 MAX. On a mostly full flight, I managed to reserve an entire row of 6 to ourselves, giving us a far more comfy flight.
But how did I do that? And what can you do to increase your chances of an empty seat next to you?
Rule of Thumb for Airplane Seat Assignments
As a rule of thumb, all else being equal, seats on an airplane generally fill from front to back, with the aisle and window seats being reserved first, and the middle seats being assigned last. It’s that simple.
This means that as long as an airplane is not entirely full, in regular Economy Class, the last seat to be selected or assigned is very likely going to be a middle seat near the back of the aircraft.
How to Get the Empty Middle
Let’s take a look at the seat map of regular Economy Class on the exact flight that we flew, FI623 from Reykjavík to Newark, departing tomorrow, 8/19/21.
As you can see, half of the available window and aisle seats are at the very back of the aircraft, between rows 26 and 28.
If you were a solo traveler selecting seats for this flight, you may be tempted to select window seats in row 16 or 19 hoping for an empty middle, or even one of the seats in row 17, vying for the elusive full row of three seats.
But reality is, either closer to departure or during online check-in (which for this flight, is opening in just over an hour), those seats will likely be either assigned to or selected by passengers who have not yet chosen a seat.
So as a solo passenger, your best bet would probably be to select one of the window or aisle seats in the last three rows of the plane, whose middle seats will likely be the last to fill. I would recommend avoiding the last row since it has limited recline and is right near the lavatory. So the best seat to select to increase your chance of having an open middle would be 27A if you like the window seat, or 26C if you prefer direct aisle access.
If you are traveling as a couple, I would recommend selecting the window and aisle in row 17, since it allows you to sit together, and gives a chance of an open middle. If someone occupies the middle seat but you still want to sit next to each other, you could always offer him or her the window or aisle in exchange for the middle; 99 times out of 100, they will take the offer.
Finally, if traveling as a group of four like I was, finding two rows of 3 seats adjacent to each other is the best bet. For my flight, row 23 happened to be completely unoccupied, so I selected the two windows and aisles. I checked closer to departure to monitor if someone took one of the middles, but nobody did. If someone took either of the middles, we could easily switch with them and still sit together. But luckily, nobody did, and we had the full row to ourselves.
Of course, the exact seating assignments will vary from date-to-date and from aircraft-to-aircraft, but the general rule of thumb stated above will, with few exceptions, stay the same no matter where and how you are flying.
And who knows: if you are extra lucky, you may even end up with a full row of three (or even four on some planes) to yourself. Perfect to stretch out and catch some ZZZZZs… 😴
I hope this post is helpful for anyone flying during this crazy time, and anybody with plans to travel in the future.
Thanks for reading, and happy flying!