Updated, see *
Last week, while Qantas was the only story, Airbus held a meeting with its A340 customers to discuss how new roles for the out of production long ranging four engined family could be found.
The discussions were interesting from a range of perspectives, but the one that grabbed the more popular media focus abroad was the capacity of the A340s to dramatically improve operating costs by making them incredibly uncomfortable with huge numbers of tiny seats.
Such as 475 seats in the largest A340, the -600, which Cathay Pacific for example once flew with a very civilised 288 seats which featured at that time, comfort leading cabins in economy, older style business class and flat bed first class configurations.
Some stories described the use of nine across seating inside an A340 as a new idea, but some airlines have already done this in their A330s, which have the same cross section as the A340, including AirAsia X on services to Australia.
In fact the same cripplingly uncomfortable seating, for a normal sized adult, was used in the A300, the first airliner Airbus produced, by French regional carrier Air Inter, and possibly others, in the 80s and 90s.
(Air Inter used this tiny, narrow seat in its full fare rows as well as the rest of its cabin, and had the hide to call it Plein Ciel, which could be mistranslated as ‘total heaven’ in an airline which was colloquially known as Air Infer or ‘air hell’.)
Ironically, the Airbus reminder that a lot more seats can be crammed into its A340s that anyone might have imagined in their worst nightmares, followed its human friendly campaign advocating a minumum seat width for economy class in all long haul jets of 18 inches for American readers or 45.7 cms for the rest of the world.
But the real point is that all wide body airlines can take very uncomfortable tighter, smaller seating if the airlines that use them believe there is more profit to be made by taking their product ever closer to configurations in which the customers can no longer actually fit into them.
That passenger breaking point has also been tested in Boeing 767s configured for eight across seats rather than seven across, and Boeing 777s which have been fitted with ten across economy seats not the original civilised nine across format. The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner family was pimped as being a wonderful eight across seating jet in economy class but most customers have opted for a nine across format that makes it very tight.
The bad news about all of these high density seating plans is that the airlines seem largely determined to find that ultimate break point, where the general increase in body size of humans meets the inexorable pressure to cut unit costs by creating extra seats.
There are other aspects of this break point too. When airlines like Jetstar put 335 seats in a Dreamliner which Boeing promoted as a 200-250 seat airliner, and actually sell all of them, they no longer have the same available range that they would have with the smaller number of seats.
It can be argued that excessive seating density can harm longer haul economics in operations, including the effects of losing customers to airlines with wider seats, wider aisles, and fewer passengers per available toilet.
At the moment the battle over seat size is won in favour of more tiny, smaller seats because the metrics that measure total available revenue look better. But the accountants need to be reminded, one way or another, that if the customer can’t sit in those seats without their extremities going numb after a few hours, the available revenue will not necessarily translate to improved gross revenue.
Updated * Airbus points out that the 18 inch or 45.7 cms eight across seat can remain the standard even in the 475 seat layout by optimising the cabin for short rather than longer haul flights. This involves removing a middle bar area in some layouts used in the A340-600 model to make way for additional rows. The -600, the largest and notably longest of the A340 series, has also been equipped with 10 doors which means that from a regulatory “emergency evacuation” point of view, there are enough evacuation doors to increase the seating number to 475.