Best Airline Seats: Exit Row vs. Economy Comfort

by Michael on Sep 21, 2012

Photo of Seats Inside an Airplane Cabin

This is a bit random, but I was just making travel arrangements for a cross-country flight and had to choose between seats in the exit row and the “Economy Comfort” section.

Thanks in part to my Amex Delta SkyMiles credit card, I now have Gold Medallion status, which means that I can reserve those fancy Economy Comfort seats without paying extra.

But do I really want Economy Comfort? Or should I stick with my beloved exit row seats? Since I’m 6’5″, I’ve been addicted to the exit row since long before Economy Comfort existed — and long before you had to have special status or pay an upgrade fee to get into the exit row itself.

So let’s take a closer look at the options…

Cost considerations

For starters, let’s take a look at cost… The exit row can be reserved in advance without any extra fees by those with Silver Medallion status (that’s the lowest level) or higher. Even after they started charging, non-Medallion members used to be able to snag these for free at the last minute. I’m not sure that’s possible anymore.

As for Economy Comfort, there’s an upcharge associated with these seats, the size of which depends on the length of the flight. For domestic travel, Gold Medallion (and above) travelers can reserve these seats for free, whereas Silver Medallion qualifies for 50% (but free within the checkin window).

For international routes, these seats can be reserved free-of-charge if you’re Platinum Medallion or above. Gold qualifies for a 50% discount whereas Silver get you 25% off. As an added bonus, you get free boozed in Economy Comfort on international flights — though I’ve never been a fan of drinking and flying.

Legroom and space considerations

What about the seats themselves? Well, both the exit row and the Economy Comfort seats offer extra (and equivalent) legroom. The latter also offer a deeper recline which can be nice for long and/or redeye flights.

Because the tray tables are housed within the armrests in the exit row, the armrests are immobile and the seats are slightly narrower. The same is true of the bulkhead seats in Economy Comfort. Surprisingly, this can actually be an advantage if you’re sitting next a fatty who wants to raise the armrest and/or “flow” under it.

Note that some exit row seats don’t recline. In most cases, there are two consecutive exit rows and the first row doesn’t recline because it would impede passengers trying to exit through the second row. So the second exit row is the best of all possible worlds – it reclines, has extra legroom, and the seats ahead don’t recline.

A word to the wise: If you’re stuck in regular seats, be sure to avoid the rows immediately behind Economy Comfort (regular legroom but the seats ahead recline further) and immediately ahead of the emergency exit rows (regular legroom and no recline).

Comfort, storage, and safety

Here are some other factors to consider:

I’ve been on several flights where the exit row seats have a thinner seat pad (particularly the seat nearest the window) which can result in a butt-numbing experience. Talk about miserable!

Also, keep in mind that people have a tendency to stash their bags as soon as possible after boarding. This means that the cargo bins near the front (in the Economy Comfort section) can fill up fast and you could get stuck putting your bag much further back — not good when it comes time to exit.

And finally… The exit row is (obviously) nearest the exit. Thus, in the unlikely event of an emergency, you’ll have ready access to the door. That being said, those seated in the exit row are supposed to hand around and help everyone else get off the plane. And no, you can’t just shout “follow me!” and lead the way.

So… Which is the best bet? Exit row or Economy Comfort? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. As for me, I’m still waffling. But that rear exit row is still pretty darn attractive when you can grab it — especially if you’d have to pay for the alternative.

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