Debate: Window Seat or Aisle Seat?

Where do you prefer to sit on an airplane? Two travelers weigh the options.

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John Flinn

WINDOW Tough choice: Do I want to spend the next 105 minutes watching Ben Stiller in Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, or do I want to gaze down upon the Pleistocene wonderland of toothy granite peaks and 50-mile-long glaciers that is Greenland?

Sorry seatmates, my window shade is staying up.

It’s one of the less happy paradoxes of our casually globe-trotting age that the more some people see of the world, the more they surrender their childhood sense of wonder. Case in point: A recent TripAdvisor survey found that by a margin of 52 to 44 percent, fliers prefer the aisle to the window. In other words, a majority of travelers is happy to give up life-changing vistas of the broccoli-stalk trees of the Amazon Basin for convenient lavatory access.

Personally, I prefer an eagle’s-eye view of a prettily steepled Swiss village to having my foot run over by the drink cart; I’d rather cast my eyes upon the succession of snow-clad volcanoes stretching up the West Coast like a row of votive candles than be whapped by the carry-on luggage of boarding passengers.

And for reconnecting with that sense of wonder, perhaps a faint childhood memory now, nothing—nothing—beats gazing out the window on a moonlit night as your plane skims the silvery cloud tops like a scene out of Peter Pan.

Besides, the one (admittedly remote) chance I have of ever catching sleep in steerage class is to prop my pillow in the crease between window and seat and close my eyes, knowing that no weak-bladdered seatmate will have to try to clamber over me.

If, after all this, you’re still desperate to watch Night at the Museum 2, all it takes is a few clicks in your Netflix queue and it will be waiting for you when you get home.

Kelli Anderson

AISLE Here is something I’ve never heard my travel agent say: “There are only aisle seats left.” There’s a reason most business travelers choose aisle over window: it makes for a more tolerable trip.

I’m not numb to the thrill of looking out the window, but there’s one thing that’s more critical to my happiness when I’m flying, and that’s access. To the restroom, to my stuff in the overhead bin, to a quick exit off the plane, to what open space there is.

On the aisle, you never have to watch in dismay as your seatmate wraps himself in a blanket, swallows a pill, slaps on his eyeshades and descends into a flight-long coma, leaving you trapped to stew in discomfort and pique for the next five hours.

On the aisle, you have options. If you’re feeling social and the passenger in the middle seat isn’t, well, maybe the guy across the aisle is. And if you’re not feeling chatty and the woman next to you is three promotions deep into detailing her son-in-law’s management consulting career, you can escape.

Moreover, sitting on the aisle may be better for your health. A 2009 article by the Lahey Clinic at Tufts University reported on studies that found that people sitting in non-aisle seats are at slightly greater risk of developing deep-vein thrombosis (and, I’d add, deep-seated resentment of their neighbors).

Sure, the aisle seat has its perils, too: You’re vulnerable to falling coats and ill-stowed satchels, but if you’re the aisle-sitter, chances are you’ll be the one opening the overhead bin. True, you might get your foot nipped by the beverage cart, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to extend your legs into the aisle in the first place.

And, of course, you must yield when your seatmates need to use the loo. That’s OK by me: Moving out of the way is moving—and I’ll take that pleasure over a sky-high view every flight.

Tips:

  • Planes that feature an in-seat video screen (usually newer planes and larger planes) often have an electronics box underneath selected seats that eats up legroom. On a Continental 757, for example, the aisle seat has the largest box, while on most United 767s the window seat has the largest box.
  • In larger planes, i.e., twin-aisle planes (777, 747, A330, A340) the window seats will feel more spacious than they do in smaller planes. The curvature of the fuselage creates this effect.
  • The rear of the plane often has a taper that has forced some carriers to install seats in these locations that are slightly less wide. So that feeling that the wall seems closer to you in the back is often accurate.
  • If you plan on sleeping, make life easier for yourself and your seatmates by asking if they need to get up before you nod off.
  • For seat maps with best seat options, check out seatguru.com.
  • When it’s time to pass beverages in—or trash out—be helpful. The flight attendant will appreciate it and may remember it when you need an extra pillow or blanket.

This article was first published in February 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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