There are no shortage of articles that talk about seat density and cramped quarters on airline aircraft.  As I’ve read each of these industry commentary, data … real data is sparse.

So what does the data say?

Sources – Airline websites, seat guru (pitch and width metrics), (fleet numbers), and aircraft data from Boeing/Airbus (Max capacity, designed 2 class capacity)

So lets set the sandbox for this analysis.

  • International Wide-Body fleets in the US. (Just means AA, DL, UA)
  • Lets look at Seat Pitch, Width, and density.
  • Compare density between carriers and between the manufactures marketed 2 class configuration and maximum occupancy certified for the aircraft.
  • Some carriers like DL and UA have multiple fleet variations making in difficult to determine the number of aircraft in a given configuration. For this article’s purpose it will just use the most common variant of the aircraft (AA’s wide-body aircraft were only one variant per fleet).
  • According to there may be a range in pitches/widths on specific aircraft. This analysis takes the average of those numbers.

With that lets get started:

American   Delta   United  
Fleet # Airbus Fleet # Airbus Fleet# Boeing
15 330-200 11 330-200 37 767-3 (1)
9 330-300 31 330-300 16 767-4
    4 330-900neo 74 777-2(1)
  Boeing 13 350-900 18 777-3
21 767-3     12 787-8
47 777-2   Boeing 25 787-9
20 777-3 56 767-3 (1) 9 787-10
20 787-8 21 767-4 (1)    
22 787-9 18 777-2 (2)    

With these fleet configurations and with the pitch/width data from we get the following breakdown in seat categories by carrier. Each carrier has their own naming approach to these classifications, so they have been organized as closely as possible.

Economy       Economy Extra  
Avg Pitch       Avg Pitch    
31.40 31.17 31.50   35.92 34.78 34.94
Avg Width       Avg Width    
17.15 17.64 18.03   17.18 17.75 17.95
Total Seats       Total Seats    
25,661 24,945 27,953   6,749 15,826 4,028
% of All Seats     % of All Seats  
63% 50% 72%   17% 32% 10%
Premium Econ     Business    
Avg Pitch       Avg Pitch    
39.85 38.00 38.00   56.18 76.57 78.36
Avg Width       Avg Width    
18.76 18.65 18.77   20.70 21.37 21.40
Total Seats       Total Seats    
3,025 621 1,600   4,979 7,802 5,320
% of All Seats     % of All Seats  
7% 1% 4%   12% 16% 14%
Avg Pitch    
64.00 78.00 n/a
Avg Width    
21.50 22.00 n/a
Total Seats    
160 592  
% of All Seats  
0% 1% 0%

The data speaks for itself… as long as it’s in context. A couple of take-aways from the average pitches and widths, demonstrates how each airline strategically positions themselves. United has the largest number of wide body seats of any of the US international carriers, while Delta has the least. 

As a percentage of total wide body seats Delta has the most basic economy seats.

United has the largest number of premium and economy plus, with American at second and Delta at third. Interestingly, if you were to fly wide body economy+ or premium American would give you an additional inch to 2 inches of legroom per seat over Delta.

While its true Delta doesn’t have any “First Class” seats, whereas American and United still do, the Delta One seats are the largest of the bunch with 78 inches of pitch.

So what about Pitch and Width?

Pitch is the distance between seats and as that number is increased or decreased airlines can control the number of seats on an aircraft. 

From a Basic Economy seat standpoint all carriers are very close together, and in the premium economy American pulls ahead, while in the Business to First, Delta has the longest pitch (It does beg the question for another time, how much pitch do you really need?)

So if airlines can change pitch to put more people on airplanes , how does modifying seat width change real estate on-board? American configures their 767-300 with 209 pax’s, Delta configures their most common variant with 208 (the others are up to 226) , and United configures their most common variant at 214. 

Outside of lavatory/galley modifications, the real estate on this model of aircraft is the same. So if American’s economy width is 17.8, Delta’s 17.9 and United’s is 18.2 where does the additional 1-2 inches over the width of an aircraft come from?

It’s coming from somewhere. Whether it is the aisles or seats themselves the larger widths frequently discussed by industry commentators are coming at the cost of something else, because width changes are definitely not going towards more seats.

This led to the question of how best to measure which airline packs their passengers in least?

Two comparisons are used to give some context to this. Manufacture recommended 2 class seat configuration size and the limit. The limit is the maximum allowed.

By mulitplying the number of aircraft in a fleet by the number of seats in these two metrics created a baseline by which to measure an airlines existing seat concentration. Their may be some bias since Airbus and Boeing aren’t identical in how many people can occupy an aircraft, but it was an interesting comparison.

The following is the result of that calculation. It is the percentage of recommended(or Maximum) capacity an airline uses in its wide body fleet.

  2 Class Max
AA 89% 62%
DL 87% 64%
UA 93% 67%

Interestingly, Delta uses the least percentage of the recommended 2 class staffing configuration while American uses the least of the maximum configuration. Airbus’s 2 class seat recommendations may be closer to the maximum capacity for their aircraft than Boeing’s. This be why DL is closer to maximum staffing capacity of their aircraft, while be lower on the 2 class.

Final thoughts. 

The airlines are very close in seat sizing on wide-body aircraft. Some airlines lean towards more legroom in the bulk of their seats like American , while others lean towards wider seats like Delta. 

United does have a lot of widebody seats, but they do pack them in closer, and Delta uses most of their wide body seats for basic economy giving American and United an edge when it comes to those willing to pay a little more for the room.

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