tip off
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Airbus starts seat width war, or maybe an entente cordiale

Airbuds infographic on its sleep and seat width study

It will probably provoke another one of those Airbus v Boeing slanging matches that get so tiresome, but the European plane maker’s call this evening for a humane minimum seat width of 18 inches (45.72 cms) in future airliner long haul economy cabins would be worthy of bilateral support.

Both Airbus and Boeing have proposed and current airliners that were created to achieve such a seating standard, yet have been, or perhaps soon will be, ruined by the hellish pack- them-in attitudes of too many airlines.

This ought to be Airbus and Boeing versus inhumane long haul seating not versus each other. (In our dreams of course.)

But first, this is the core of  the what and why of the Airbus proposal.

Today Airbus reveals new research into the impact seat width makes to levels of passenger comfort on board long haul economy flights; calling on the aviation industry to set a minimum standard of 18 inches (45.72cm) in order to improve the comfort of long haul air travel.

The ground breaking research conducted by Harley Street medical practice The London Sleep Centre using polysomnography* to record every standard physiological sleep measurement – including monitoring brainwaves, eye, abdominal, chest and hip leg movement – on a selection of passengers revealed that a minimum seat width of 18 inches improved passenger sleep quality by 53%.

Dr Irshaad Ebrahim of The London Sleep Centre commented: “The difference was significant. All passengers experienced a deeper, less disturbed and longer nights’ sleep in the 18 inch seat. They went from one sleep stage to the next as you would expect them to do under normal circumstances. Whilst, in the narrower 17 inch seat the passengers were affected by numerous disturbances during sleep – which meant they rarely experienced deep restorative sleep. When it comes to flying long haul in economy, an inch makes a huge difference on passenger comfort.”

Kevin Keniston, Airbus’ Head of Passenger Comfort comments: “If the aviation industry doesn’t take a stand right now then we risk jeopardising passenger comfort into 2045 and beyond – especially if you take into account aircraft delivery timetables combined with expected years in service. Which means another generation of passengers will be consigned to seats which are based on outdated standards.”

Airbus points out that its current A380 and now in flight testing A350 designs meet or exceed this minimum standard.

But so did the current series Boeing 777s and 787s before economy amenity was destroyed by cramming in extra seats that take the former from nine across seats to ten across and the latter from eight across to nine across. (There are honourable exceptions to this.)

Similarly, today’s A330s have been trashed for long haul flying by changing its eight across seating to nine across in some carriers, resulting in seat widths of 16.5 inches (42 cms)  in an AirAsia X or Cebu Pacific A330-300, an atrocity foreshadowed by Air Inter in the 80s and 90s in its similarly wide A300s, which could cripple the masses just between Orly and Lyon before they were rescued by the first TGV trains.

There is no doubt that Airbus strategists see some leverage in the 18 inch minimum seat width, since that produces a nine across standard economy seating cabin in its A350s, and if the larger and later Boeing 777-X series of airliners was to do the same, it could actually have a wider nine across configuration, but it would be volumetrically challenged by the earlier Airbus design and especially one might surmise by any stretches that might be offered for a similar entry into service of around 2021.

But there are swings and roundabouts in such scenarios that can bite both Airbus and Boeing. At the moment the prevailing attitude among airlines is that they have largely succumbed to the temptation to cram the Dreamliners with really awful nine across seating, (17 inches or 43.18 cms, the same as a short haul tight pack 737) compared to nine across in an A350 at the proposed minimum standard of 18″ or 45.72 cms.

However if A350 customers decide to go 10 across in an A350, which would be inhumanely possible, or 11 across on the main deck of an A380, the amenity of both of those Airbus products would be just as seriously trashed as a tight fit format in current 777s or 787s. The operating economics per seat per kilometre would be outstanding, but if there was a keenly priced but 2.5-3 cms wider alternative, such an A350 or A380 option would be one that better informed or previously mishandled flyers might avoid.

Regular flyers have reason to be cynical as to where this is headed. An increasing number of carriers are offering a premium economy product that gives back to travellers what they have lost since DC-10s were eight across in economy and classic 747s were nine across.

While airline economics dictate ever smaller seats, the average sized human is gradually increasing in size due to everything from better nutrition to excessive nutrition.

Airbus is right in urging that a minimum standard be agreed, but clearly the airliner manufacturers aren’t in any position to make it a binding condition on what seat width is installed in one of their jets provided the total number doesn’t exceed the maximum permitted under safety rules under strict emeergency evacuation tests.

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  • 1
    Frequent Traveller
    Posted October 28, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    In addition to better seat cushion width, for better lateral vital space, there is another cabin accomodation promiscuity factor, immediately perceived in any aircraft cabin : the seat EMF or “Excuse-Me Factor”, which in current A32X Series or 73X Series feeder types, with the classical [3+3] seating configuration, reaches an agonizing EMF = 6 per row. Also, for Flight Attendants, serving the outer lhs or rhs A or F seats in those same aircraft types is a cause of stress and MSD. A “new charter for aircraft cabin configuration” should include a ban against installing triple seats against a wall-panel : triples must be made accessible from both ends !

  • 2
    keesje
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    A sharp “scientific” arrow aimed at the Max, 777X and 78 I guess..

  • 3
    Mike Bohnet
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    Yeah, “scientific” should indeed be in quotes. The “arrow” is only sharp if one believes in the results of this so called study. One should always ask who funded this “ground breaking” work. Follow the money.

  • 4
    keesje
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Airbus is opportunistic.

    Boeing has been at least as opportunistic declaring 10 abreast on the 777X the new standard and basing the advertised capacity and efficiency of the 777X on it. Just like they did on the 469 seat 747-8i.

    I think its is funny to see on the web folks from a certain country that likes everything big and comfortable certainly do a U turn and stating comfort in this case is unimportant really ;)

  • 5
    FlyLo
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    I came across this article in the Wall Street Journal ‘The Incredible Shrinking Plane Seat’ (see http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304384104579141941949066648).

    The article quotes Tim Clark of Emirates as saying “we’ve tried it, it works” to eleven across seating on the lower-deck of an A380.

    He’s also quoted as saying the solution to squeezed seating is to offer distractions like big meals, frequent snacks and lots of electronic entertainment. “With food and TV” said Mr Clark “people are mesmerized”.

  • 6
    Giant Bird
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    Selling aircraft so crammed will come back to bite Boeing. After an uncomfortable experience passengers will recognise not only the airline but the plane model as uncomfortable. If I have time I always check the seat layout before booking long haul. I use search sites to compare not only fares but also total time and convenience of initial departure and final arrival times. If I am hard pressed because of closing specials or seats selling fast I just choose on aircraft type.
    My pecking order is 767, 330, 380, 747, 777, 787.

  • 7
    Bear
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    In the battle against tighter configurations, perhaps airline managements and/or bean counters would take notice if customers, pax, or Guests (in VA-speak), especially their most frequent flyers, took a leaf out of Alcoholics Anonymous’ book, and signed some sort of on-line “pledge” that they will a) NOT fly in long-haul a/c configured for 17″ or worse seat width, meaning 10 across in a 777, 9 in a 787, 11 in a 380 and b) would switch to airlines offering better (or standard, really…) comfort.

    Managements might realise that there is no point to having so many seats, if they remain empty!

  • 8
    Mark Skinner
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    I remember in 1980 when I travelled to London on a 747 – economy class. It was not that much less crowded than now as far as I recall, and I thought that price pretty reasonable then – $2000.

    However, that $2000 price in todays money is roughly $8000.

    For $8000, I can have QF premium economy seat and a far better experience in every way than I had in 1980, along with a couple of thousand dollars in my hand to spend. So nobody need be any worse off than they were in the good old days.

    On the other hand, I can have a more crowded ‘experience’ for $1800 – about a quarter of the fare I paid in the good old days.

    I really see this as a case of businesses offering their customers a range of product qualities at a range of prices. The traditional products from the ‘good old days’ First, Business, Economy are really now First, Business, Premium Economy and are all better and cheaper than they were in those good old days.

    In addition there is now a ‘Sardine’ class where people have to sacrifice comfort and amenity in order to get a price so cheap I would not have believed it possible in the good old days.

    Frankly, since the 1980s, airlines have given us choice now of four classes, to suit four different budgets and four different tolerances of hardship or luxury, and at cheaper prices than ever before…and we have the choice of going down the budget airline route and having it even rougher and cheaper – so in reality we have a choice of FIVE classes. And yet we complain. Sigh.

    When you think how cheap travelling to LHR and back for $1800 is compared to many other things and ticket costs in the past, I think that airlines are doing a better job than plenty of other companies around today.

  • 9
    patrick kilby
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Mark for that reality check. I can remember my first flight (to anywhere) was to KL then Jakarta on a QF707 in 1974 for the same dollar value that you can go to KL or Jakarta now on Jetsar, and in rather cramped seating even then as I recall. Nowadays in adjusted dollars, it would be a first class ticket (with change) ,and a very nice seat indeed. This is reminicent of Monty Pythons Four Yorkshirmen (“young people today would never believe you!!!”)

  • 10
    Bear
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Mark… you make an interesting point. In terms of that $2000 from 1980, one could also add that it represents greater value these days insofar as the time it takes to work and earn that $2K is far less than in 1980.

    So that’s all nice, BUT… the trouble is that the in-between class i.e. Premium Y is not all that popular with airline managements as they fear it cannibalises some of the Biz class yield. So, it is not always offered. From my observation, it is still hard to come by.

    So you have the situation with some quality carriers that you have no choice. For instance both EK & EY serve SYD with 10-abreast 777s with no PY offered at all. True, if you do your research before booking travel, you can fly on each of their more comfortable A380 ( currently 10 across – but watch this space…) in the case of EK, and A340-600s at 8-across with EY. There are also similar other examples. The whole point being that a) you can still pay a somewhat hefty amount of money for cramped seating, or pay a fortune for Biz.

  • 11
    icarus
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Shame on AB for kowtowing to the American’s like lackeys designating aircraft seats in inches. Worse still this from the country (France) that gave the world a decent and logical measurement system. Almost 98 % of people on this globe think in meters and centimeters and haven’t got a clue what 18″ medieval thumbs are. Do that in America, but please spare the rest of the world that anachronism. Designate it in 46 cm and almost everybody on this globe knows its just shy of 0.5 m.

  • 12
    Rufus
    Posted October 29, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Permalink

    I agree with Mark. Wider seats, more legroom etc sounds great but ultimately, it’s what people will pay for. Air travel is more accessible than it has ever been, and cramming more people onto a plane is one of the ways this has been achieved. If you don’t like it, pay the equivalent of the $8k economy fare from 1980 – which now buys you a nice Skybed at the pointy end (far better than anything you would have got in 1980).

  • 13
    Xoanon
    Posted October 30, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    The problem is that for Business to remain full, Economy must be kept uncomfortable and unpleasant. Premium Economy itself is always priced far too high compared to Economy IMO. Rather than, say, a 50% surcharge for 25% more space, PE is often 2-3 times more than a typical Economy fare. I’d fly Premium Economy more often if a) it was commonly available; and b) it was more affordable.

    In the end though, there has to be some health-related limit to how tight Economy seats can be allowed to get. I’d be happy with binding international regulations that said they have to be at least 50cm wide, even if average fares had to jump a bit as a result. At least we’d all be in the same boat.

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