airplane seats head

Airline seats selection

Airlines use a fairly standard process of assign seats.

Most airplanes have multiple economy sections — some including a “premium economy” towards the front, with slightly better seating arrangements.  Today, most international carriers use B737 or similar, which typically have a configuration of 3-4-3 seats in a row. That means there are three seats (A, B and C) by the left window, four in the middle (D, E, F and G), and three by the right window (H, J and K).

airplane seats b737 animationGenerally, and only focussing on economy seats, and ignoring your airline frequent flyer status, they commence by assigning from the front to the rear, left to right, and then filling the centre section — load balancing the airplane as they go.  Groups are generally seated together towards the rear of economy.  This animation I created gives you an indication of the usual process of assigning airline seats.


  • Bulkhead seats (those at the front of sections of the plane with no seat in front) are generally held for families with basinets or regular passengers.
  • Emergency row seats may have more legroom, however the arm rests are often not adjustable.  Further, the row in front of the emergency row, often has limited recline.
  • Seats towards the rear of the section adjacent to the crew galley on the right hand side of the plane are often last to fill, so if the plane is not full, crew can use them to rest enroute.
  • Seating over the wing is both the first place airlines fill for load balancing.   FYI, the window seats in this section do not have much a of view other than the top of the wing.
  • Generally, middle seats (other than when a couple is traveling together and requested to sit together, are the last to fill.
  • Airlines used to fly at 60% capacity. Now, that number is closer to 80 to 90%, which means most middle seats are occupied.
  • The last row of each section often finds seats that don’t recline and are adjacent to the bathroom.

Using this processing concept, if you believe the flight will be less than 90% sold, your best chance to have an empty seat next to you is to sit towards the rear, on the right hand side of the plane.

Today, airlines push seating offers, especially in China and southeast Asia where they are willing to sacrifice comfort for cheaper seats.  As a result, seats in Asian airlines are often smaller, and planes are fuller.

Sneaky tip: If you believe the flight will be less than 90% sold, and you are traveling with someone, but would like an empty seat next to you, then best to request both a window and an aisle in the rear right of the plane, leaving the middle seat between you empty.  In the worst case scenario and someone does come onboard to sit between you, it’s 99.99% guaranteed that they will agree to switch seats to either the aisle or window, to allow the 2 of you to sit together.

Also, 48 (or 24) hours before your flight, go to the airline website for online checkin, and try to change your seat — if you see two empty seats next to each with a few empties in front of this, take the window and aisle, leaving the empty middle. This seat will likely still be empty when you checkin, unless the plane fills 95%.  So you loose nothing by trying this.

FYI, row numbers are often meaningless, and not indicative of actual rows from the front.  In China, many airlines First Class start at row 21, Business Class at 31 and Economy at 51.  Some with upper decks have Business class starting at row 51.  Best always to use a seat mapping app like “Seat Guru” or airline website to review the seating plan for your particular airline, flight — small changes in planes can make huge differences in seating.

airplane seats b737 full

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Toby Simkin’s Broadway Entertainment, LLC
dba within China as: 沈途彬商务咨询(上海)有限公司

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