People who love to fly don’t fly economy.
For the past several months, my husband has pitched the idea of AirlineReporter readers likely being interested in a trip report written by a “normal person” like me. In this case, “normal” is defined as someone who doesn’t choose flights based on the aircraft model, or speak in cabin class codes (e.g. Y, J, M, F). I am not an AvGeek and I am sort of proud of it (although I still love you all).
My husband and I fly together several times a year and, when we do, I am able to piggyback off of his status and occasionally get a free upgrade to business/first for domestic flights. However, the “opportunity” for me to fly long-haul economy eventually arose when I needed to fly from Seattle to Hyderabad, India for work.
To establish some context, I consider myself to be an experienced economy flier. Before meeting my husband and learning of the world of mileage runners and aviation geekdom, I had several flights between the US and Europe to visit distant relatives, as well as a semester studying abroad where I tried to fly to another city every other weekend. In all of these cases, I only ever flew economy, and have fond memories of being nestled under a blanket and binge-watching in-flight entertainment on a few good-length flights. Even though I didn’t pay much attention to the seat dimensions, I enjoyed flying and viewed it as a chance for peace, quiet, and self-reflection.
However, my flight to and from India was going to be much more rigorous than my previous travels. I had two back-to-back ten-hour flights in British Airways’ economy class, traveling from SEA>LHR>HYD. To top it off, I needed to do the reciprocal leg within five days of my arrival.
On my flight out, I sat next to my coworker, which made it much less awkward to manage the logistics, such as rummaging under the seat in front of you, getting things opportunistically from the overhead bin, arranging trips to the lavatory, and trading off the window seat. By the time I had to fly back, I had already watched and/or slept through six movies on the IFE, I was flying alone, and I was starting coming down with a cold. The outlook was grim before I had even gotten to my seat.
Living with an AvGeek, you start to understand obscure terms such as “three-four-three y” (which is an economy class with three seats next to the windows and four seats in the middle), and understand that a 787 is newer than a 767 and usually has newer seats. To me, newer seats tend to be a good sign, since it increases the likelihood of in-seat power and tends to have nicer video screens.
In the weeks before my flight, I read a rant about the decreasing quality of economy class in favor of increasing the number of seats you can cram in a plane. The author had a background in the aviation business but tends to only fly first or business, so their understanding of a 17” seat pitch is purely theoretical. I’d only paid passing attention to it, since I had never really had a seat which was uncomfortable enough to consider it a memorable experience. I attributed this to being a relatively average sized person—I am a 5’6” female who wears size 8 jeans.
And so, with the odds ever in my favor, I used my modicum of status (Ruby) to wind up being the first person in my row. I shoved my rollaboard in the overhead bin, tossed my messenger bag in the general vicinity of my window seat, noted the nice seat tech (USB power! An outlet!), sat down…. and immediately saw my problem.
My messenger bag would not fit under the seat in front of me. Since this a bag that I travel with heavily on domestic economy, the notion that it would not fit under the seat in front of me on a 10-hour international flight never crossed my mind. However, not matter how I tried to squeeze or rotate my bag, I wasn’t able to wedge it into the gap. Ducking my head down to investigate, I discovered that the under-seat space in front of me was reallocated for two large metal compartments on either side, with a life vest along the top of the compartment.
Trying to make the best of it, I quickly started to rummage through my bag to try to grab any of the necessities I expected to need on my flight, and crammed everything that would fit into the net on the seat back in front of me. My laptop, book, and chargers would not fit so they went back in the bag which I speedily stowed away in the overhead bin.
Prepared for the next ten hours, I decided to test whether I could use the space in front of me for my feet. When I crossed my ankles, my feet shoved up against the life jacket. When I uncrossed them, my feet had about an inch of space on either side.
It was this moment that I decided that it should be a requirement for airline executives to have to test their economy class seats on a fully booked long-haul flight before being allowed to downgrade their seating. My seat had just enough space when I sat perfectly still, but the dimensions were such that I couldn’t really cross my legs with invading the personal space of the passenger next to me.
I took a quick photo of my seat pitch as the other passengers started filing in, which probably earned me the first impression of a crazy person. As the plane door closed, my husband texted me that he envied my opportunity for content creation, and then the small child behind me started enthusiastically kicking the metal compartment on the back of my seat. Sigh.
Advil. I had forgotten my Advil. It was still stowed in my messenger bag. I started weighing the likelihood of the flight attendants having bottles of wine (a key substitute for Advil) on their meal carts against the certainty of disgruntling my seat companions by immediately needing to get something out of my bag.
Unfortunately, morning flights turn out not to have tiny wine bottles on the meal cart. Instead, I tried to coordinate everything I needed to with regards to my seat configuration (shoes off, blanket on, tablet away) before they foisted a serving of scrambled eggs and chicken sausage on me. I needed to unfold my tray table and, even then, the food barely fit on my tray table and kept sliding towards me as a result of the passenger in front of me reclining their seat which had slightly angled my tray. In my mind, I added another argument for forcing airline executives or, well, anyone who designed the cabin to have to test fly their creation.
It is a bad sign when you interpret the person in front of you reclining their seat feels like an act of aggression. It is a worse sign when a flight attendant tells passengers to return their seats to the upright position so that the trays stop sliding and that people can successfully eat.
Shortly after breakfast, the video screens went out and the babies on the plane started a call and response of hysterically crying. In my aspirational airline executive test flight, I decided that the test flight would definitely need crying children. Several crying children.
I decided that sleep would be the best option and I tried to close my window, only to discover my window did not have a screen. Instead, there was a small pair of buttons that tinted my screen various shades of blue. Unfortunately, anxiously pressing these buttons never actually entirely shut the window. I made a mental note to ask my husband what possible advantage that could provide, particularly on long flights where at least someone would be trying to sleep. Turns out — he doesn’t like them either.
Instead, I wound up trying to settle in and move as little as possible for the several hours, with only occasional misadventures in awkwardly scraping the backs of my thighs on the knees of the other people in my row to queue up for the lav. I couldn’t manage to rotate in a way that made sleeping comfortable, so I wound up watching movies and trying not to shift into my neighbor’s personal space until I stumbled out into Heathrow airport and felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude that my next flight wasn’t on quite as new of a plane.
In closing, this won’t be my last economy flight. However, as long-haul economy starts to get more cramped than domestic economy, I’ve found that I’ve become a much warier long-haul solo traveler. I’ve started paying a lot more attention to seat pitch, in-flight entertainment, and the number of seats per row as opposed to just the departure time, number of layovers, and arrival time.
Also, you might noticed that there are none of photos that I personally took. My apologies. Like I said, I do not take photos of airplanes and I guess the ones that I took were not up to standard. Oh well. Maybe next time.
This article was written by the wife of an AvGeek for AirlineReporter