How to Make ‘Poor Man’s Business Class’ Even More Comfortable — and Safe

Oct 4, 2018

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On a recent flight from Chicago to Beijing, my wife Katie and I each got a rare treat: an entire three-seat row for ourselves — commonly referred to as “poor man’s business class.”

With airline passenger loads at historical highs, this opportunity should be pretty rare. That said, I’ve lucked into this three times in the 14 long-haul economy flights I’ve flown this year. It seems especially common on this AA flight from Chicago to Beijing, no doubt part of why AA is cancelling this route in a few weeks.

The other two times came on Air Canada flights between Vancouver and Beijing earlier this year. This opportunity was even better, as this was on a Boeing 777 arranged 3-4-3, with four seats to stretch completely flat across:

Just a week after that Air Canada experience, TPG‘s Julian Kheel got a whole A380 row to himself on his way to Europe. So, those opportunities are out there — especially when you fly during off-peak travel periods.

But one question that I got when I posted that Air Canada picture: how do you stay safe when laying flat in economy? After all, severe turbulence is going to throw you around whether you’re seated or laying down, and there have been quite a few passengers hurt in turbulence events so far this year.

In the case of the Air Canada 777, the middle four seats were arranged so you could buckle the two middle-seat seatbelts together around your body. But, the seatbelts in the three-seat rows on the Dreamliner are set-up in a way that only the skinniest passenger would be able to buckle a seatbelt around their body. And, even if you were able to buckle it, it would be far too tight to be comfortable.

Sure, you might be willing to risk the small chance of being hurt by just going unbuckled. But the flight attendants might not be down with this plan. And you don’t want to have your sleep interrupted by a flight attendant waking you up and telling you to buckle up.

In fact, it was one of these safety-conscious flight attendants that suggested a solution on my Chicago-Beijing flight: request a seat belt extender.

Since that experience, I’ve spoken with various flight attendants to try to get an idea of how many seat belt extenders are available on board and how in demand they are. It turns out that there are plenty of extras to go around for just this purpose.

The minimum equipment list for AA’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner — the aircraft on which I’ve flown most of my recent long-haul flights — requires that 10 seat belt extenders are on-board. So, there’s going to at least be that many. However, an AA flight attendant mentioned when you add in the demonstration seat belts, there are effectively around 28 seat belt extenders.

But, will flight attendants mind you asking for a seat belt extender? It doesn’t seem so. Each of the FAs I’ve spoken with in my unofficial polling since that Chicago-Beijing flight last month seems to think that’s a perfectly reasonable request — as long as it’s done after takeoff, after passengers with legitimate need for the seat belt extenders have been able to claim them.

So, next time you find yourself lucking into “poor man’s business class,” make sure to ask nicely for a seat belt extender once you’re in the air. Then, buckle up and catch some sleep in that rare economy lie-flat product.

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