The Boeing 767-300ER Icelandair flies into San Francisco International Photo: Icelandair
A United Airlines Boeing 767 approaches its gate at Bush Intercontinental Airport Photo: Bill Montgomery, Houston Chronicle
Economy class seats on United's retrofitted 767s are 18.5 inches wide, configured 2-3-2 Photo: United Airlines
United's new Polaris configuration on a Boeing 767-300ER. United calls this a 1-1-1 configuration, but it looks more like 2-2-2 to me Photo: United Airlines
A Delta 767 taking off from SFO Photo: InSapphoWeTrust
The 777s’ new Premium Select cabin has eight-across seating. (Image: Delta) Photo: Delta
One of two engines on a United Boeing 767 flying to Chicago ORD from London Photo: Chris McGinnis
Flying over London at night on a United 767 (Photo: Chris McGinnis) Photo: Chris McGinnis
Legroom in Economy Plus on United's Boeing 777-300ER jets is not bad for someone who's a few inches shy of 6-feet. Photo: Tim Jue
This is the economy cabin on United's Boeing 777-300ER jets. Photo: Tim Jue
United Airlines' economy class seats on a Boeing 777-200ER are configured 3-4-3. Note economy plus with darker headrests Photo: Chris McGinnis
United Airlines' economy class seats on a Boeing 777-200ER are configured 3-4-3 Photo: Chris McGinnis
Economy class on Singapore Airlines B777 configured 3-3-3 Photo: Chris McGinnis
Turkish Airlines flies a Boeing 777-300 ER between San Francisco and Istanbul.
Economy class is configured 3-3-3 on Turkish Airlines Boeing 777-300ER flying between SFO and Istanbul, Turkey Photo: Chris McGinnis
The distinguishing flat or bladed tail of the Boeing 777 on Turkish Airlines (Photo: Chris McGinnis) Photo: Chris McGinnis
A new United B777-300ER at SFO Photo: Chris McGinnis
Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER at SFO Photo: Jason Vaudrey
Air India's B777-ER economy class is configured 3-3-3 (Image: Wikimedia Commons) Photo: Wikimedia Commons
First look at a brand new B777-300ER at Boeing’s slick new delivery center (Chris McGinnis)
Qantas Airways' Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Courtesy Qantas Airways Photo: Qantas
Qantas Airways Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner Economy cabin configured 3-3-3. Courtesy Qantas Airways. Photo: Brent Winstone, Qantas
United's new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner will soon fly on transcontinental routes from SFO and LAX to New York Photo: United Airlines
Boeing's Dreamliner 787-10 Photo: Boeing
KLM will use a 787-9 Dreamliner for new Las Vegas service. (Photo: KLM) Photo: KLM
Economy class on United’s 787-9, configured 9 across at 3-3-3 Photo: United
ANA's Boeing 787 Dreamliner at San Jose Photo: Chris McGinnis
Air New Zealand will fly a Boeing 787-9 between Chicago and Auckland Photo: Air New Zealand
Air Canada's basic black, white and red livery on a 787 Dreamliner Photo: Air Canada
El Al's Boeing 787 Dreamliner flies between SFO and Tel Aviv Photo: El Al
Recently, a friend of mine who flies fairly often for business gave me a call after one of his flights from Asia.
"Never again!" he said, exasperated and furious. "Unless I'm up front in business class, I'll never fly the Boeing's 787 Dreamliner ever again!"
At that point, I was confused — why wouldn't anyone want to fly on the Boeing 787, one of the newest and most advanced jets that's ever taken to the skies? Who wouldn't want bigger overhead bins, larger windows you can dim with a touch of a button, and lighting that's easier on the eyes?
"I felt like a sardine!" my friend bellowed. "Crammed in the very middle of the middle seats, I had zero wiggle room. For a long flight across the Pacific, I expected more personal space."
Turns out, he's not the only frequent flier who shares that sentiment when it comes to the current state of economy class, long-haul travel.
Personal space is shrinking, seats are getting narrower, and planes are flying fuller than ever — a trifecta of challenges that's testing the nerves and knees frequent travelers like my buddy, who spends more than half the year away from home.
So let's look at the three most common Boeing wide body jets you are most likely going to fly on when headed abroad, the 767, 777 and 787, and see which one will provide the most comfort at the back of the plane.
Here's how each compares in economy:
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Boeing 787 Dreamliner with a toothy edged engine
You've probably heard about all the passenger-pleasing features built into Boeing's newest jet, but for economy class passengers, personal space is tight as my friend discovered on his transpacific 787 flight between Osaka to SFO. In the back, most carriers have opted to configure Dreamliners at nine seats abreast (arranged 3-3-3). Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) are rare exceptions, with some — but not all — 787s at only eight abreast (2-4-2).
At this point, many airlines have some sort of buy-up option for extra-legroom seats that offer more pitch. However, if you're someone with big shoulders who prefers width over legroom, you may be out of luck in the back. Economy seats on Dreamliners measure up to just 17.3 inches across, and some seats in the very back of the plane are an inch narrower than that. So the best you can do it get seat on the aisle and lean out.
Since the 787 weighs less due to the use of composites, it is more fuel-efficient, and has greater range than preceding models-- but airlines are deploying these jets on some of the longest non-stop flights ever.
Out of San Francisco International Airport, United Airlines operates the 787 non-stop to Singapore, Sydney and Tel Aviv — all of which spend at least 14 hours airborne. Qantas Airways now operates the Dreamliner to Melbourne too, a flight that clocks in at 15-hours. That's a lot of time to cozy up with your seat mates should you find yourself in a middle seat.
The Boeing 777
The main cabin on Delta refurbished 777s has nine-across seating. (Image: Delta)
Here's where things get tricky. For the last 25 years or so, Boeing's 777 has proven itself to be the workhorse for many of the world's top airlines. Passengers have grown to love "the triple." It's big, spacious, safe to fly and gives a smooth ride. Airlines love it because the jet can fly hundreds of people long distances, and now, many carriers believe they can squeeze even more people on these 777s.
Most airlines are now installing more economy class seats onto their fleets of 777s by going from nine-abreast to ten-abreast in the back-- and these include airlines with pretty posh reputations, including Emirates (which flies the world's largest 777 fleet), Cathay Pacific and British Airways. In the US, United and American Airlines are moving to 10 abreast. Delta Air Lines' 777s still offer a more humane 9-across as those jets undergo retrofitting to install new interiors.
How does nine-across compare to ten-across? It's tight!
To wedge in more seats, widths are going from a somewhat generous 18-inches to as narrow as 16-inches on some carriers. One pleasant exception to this is Delta's new A220 regional jet which rolled out this week with seats at nearly 19 inches wide.
The width of the aisles is shrinking too to accommodate the extra seats. That translates to uncomfortable closeness should you find yourself trying to squeeze past another passenger or flight attendant in the aisle on the way to the lavatory.
The Boeing 767
This is a reconfigured Economy cabin in a Boeing 767-300 aircraft. With this reconfiguration, every seat has personal, on-demand entertainment. There are power ports at every row, and the overhead bins are larger.
My friend told me about how he thought the old, tired Boeing 767 actually was much more spacious ride than the 787.
And he's right.
Most airlines configure 767s seven-abreast in economy (2-3-2), meaning among all the seats in coach, only 1/7th of them are dreaded middle seats and more than half are aisle seats.
Generally speaking, economy class seats are wider on the 767s, often measuring up to at least 18-inches in width. The best news for passengers: airlines can't go eight-abreast on the 767 if they wanted to squeeze in more seats because of the dimensions of the fuselage aren't wide enough. I've also found with fewer passengers on the plane, shorter lines for lavatories, and flight attendants more attentive to passenger requests.
Unfortunately, the world's fleet of 767s is aging out, and it's becoming increasingly expensive for airlines to operate when newer, more fuel efficient jets make better financial sense.
In California nowadays, 767s are rare birds since few carriers operate them to the West Coast. Delta Air Lines operates 767-300s on its transcontinental flights between San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and New York's Kennedy Airport. From SFO, the only airline operating long-haul 767s is Icelandair.
Hawaiian Airlines will retire its fleet of 767-300ERs by 2018 (three of them are being picked-up second hand by United Airlines- which deploys most of its 767s from Chicago, O'Hare). Hawaiian still operates a 767-300ER at San Jose, but all of the carrier's flights out of Oakland now use newer single-aisle Airbus A321neo jets.
Across the pond, British Airways will retire all of its 767s by year's end.
With wider seat width, better odds at snagging an aisle or a window, and fewer passengers all around, our vote for "roomiest in economy" goes to the 767 — the Boeing long-haul jet that gives economy passengers the comfiest ride.