Which is better: window or aisle?

For air travelers, the choice of economy class airline seat — window or aisle — is an enduring question, if not also a source of countless arguments. And for most of the year, it’s also a highly academic one, since planes are so overbooked that you’re lucky to get any seat.

Except now. With planes flying less full and the airline industry predicted to make what’s being called a “soft” landing (industry-speak for “we’re not making the obscene profits our shareholders are accustomed to”), air travelers have a choice. The debate is real.

Window proponents say a view and a fuselage to sleep against make theirs the superior choice. Passengers who prefer the aisle seats say it’s better because they have easy access to the restrooms, the possibility of a little extra legroom, and they’re first to exit the aircraft. There is only one thing both sides agree on: the intense dislike of the middle seat. No matter what you choose, you’ll need to know a few things before you make that seat selection.

First, a few numbers. Statistically, the aisle seat is more popular, at least among frequent air travelers. More than 7 in 10 air travelers looked for an aisle seat, with the rest opting for a window, according to the website ExpertFlyer. Leisure travelers, who may like looking out the window, might lean in the other direction, but we don’t have the numbers to prove it.

Interestingly, ExpertFlyer’s Chris Lopinto likes the window seat. “I can work or sleep without my aisle-mates climbing over me and creating an inconvenience for everyone,” he says.

Laura Wittchen, who works for a college in Hamilton, N.Y., agrees.

“The window seat is perfect,” she says. “No one bothers you to move. You have complete control of the window shade, which should always be down. People in aisle seats are always being asked to move so that couples and families can sit together. I have never been asked to move in a window seat.”

Nonsense, says the aisle crowd. Their seats of choice are better and they have their reasons. Lauren Fritsky, a frequent air traveler and a veteran of many long-haul flight between the U.S. and Australia, says it’s the only way to fly.

“You can use the bathroom at your will, without having to step over or wake the stranger next to you,” says Fritsky, a marketing professional from New York. “You can get up to stretch or walk around. You have more openness on your one side to position your body, instead of being cramped by two bodies or one body and a wall. You can be the first one out of your row when disembarking. And you can easily get out of your seat to get something from the overhead.”

The latest aircraft innovations have turned more travelers into aisle aficionados, suggests Allen Klein, a writer and professional speaker who lives in San Francisco. Many airlines have moved their seats closer together recently, which has forced him to move to the aisle.

“Because of my legs and the chance of a blood clot, I wear compression socks and need to get up once an hour to exercise,” he says.

There’s yet another group of air travelers that chooses a window or aisle, depending on the circumstances. That’s the assessment of Dan Suski, founder of the airline review website Seatlink.com.

“For overnight flights where I need to get some sleep, the window seat is the clear winner,” he says. “You get something to rest your head or pillow on, and you’re guaranteed fewer interruptions from other passengers. For day flights or when I want to get work done, it’s the aisle seat all the way. The aisle gives you freedom to get up and move around at any time, and it’s always a little faster for deplaning.”

Of course, in a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to choose between a window and an aisle seat. All the seats would afford both a view of the outside and easy access to the restrooms. The aircraft designer who figures out how to do that while still cramming passengers into the plane will make millions.

Speaking of millions, just because there are coveted aisle seats available doesn’t mean you’ll get one. Some airlines are now waiting until the last minute to release the seats to those who refuse to pay extra for an assignment, hoping that you’ll pony up extra cash for the privilege of not being wedged between two other passengers.

Here’s a newsflash, airlines: All the seat tricks in the world are not going to prevent that soft landing your industry is about to have. But they may turn it into more of a hard landing.

SIDEBAR: How to get an aisle seat

Ask for it.
Airlines will assign a desirable aisle seat to passengers who need the extra room or access to the lavatory. If you have a disability or a special need, consult with the carrier’s special services desk. You can also ask a fellow passenger to switch with you after boarding.

Pull the card.
If you have a loyalty card, you may be entitled to a better seat, even if you’re just sitting in economy class. Your card may work on another airline if it has a codeshare agreement with your favorite carrier. It’s better that getting squished into a middle seat.

Pay for one.
Airlines will love this suggestion because they’ll make more money from you. But if avoiding a window or aisle is important, you may want to spend a few extra dollars. (You’re welcome, airlines.)

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