Aug 25, 2015

British Airways admits its 787s are too tight

Runway Girl Network has becom

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking


Suitable for children but not adults, an economy cabin in a 787 Dreamliner

Runway Girl Network has become the go-to site for cabin developments free of marketing spin, and has drawn attention to an admission by British Airways that the economy seats in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner are too tight.

It quotes the internal publication Up to Speed on its plans to widen the nine abreast seats in its soon to arrive 787-9s by just over a centimetre because of negative feedback from passengers using its earlier intake of lower capacity 787-8s.

This is relevant to the Qantas order for an initial eight 787-9s to enable older 747 retirements and new route or frequency developments from later in 2017. Qantas group CEO Alan Joyce has been quoted as favouring the high density economy for its Dreamliners because that’s what just about everyone else is doing with them.

As the Runway Girl scoops explains, it isn’t known where British Airways will find what would amount to an extra 11 cms of space across a row of nine seats and two aisles, with those aisles, or perhaps the armrests, or even a redefinition of what constitutes seat width, being the source of more space within the fixed confines of the cabin diameter.

Narrower aisles would make life miserable for those with shoulders seated on the aisles, a problem already evident among normal sized adults seated in 777s that have adopted the new stuff-the-customer format in that once spacious bigger Boeing by adding one extra seat per row.

The move away from the original and very civilised economy format that Boeing intended for its 787s is turning into a significant problem. Airline seating is supposed to be for adults, not children, and adults are getting bigger with each generation.

This tendency to physically hurt passengers by airlines focused on the theoretical economic yields of maximum possible seating configurations also threatens the amenity of the new Airbus A350 family, which is wider than the 787s, but thus also vulnerable to being fitted with an extra seat per row that was never part of the maker’s original vision.

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22 thoughts on “British Airways admits its 787s are too tight

  1. reeves35

    Any attempt to redress this situation by making the armrests smaller or the aisles thinner is not a great solution. A number of seat manufacturers have already patented potential solutions such as staggered seating and the like. If airlines are adamant at keeping 9 abreast, and it appears the much vaunted economics of the 787 don’t materialise until this action is adopted, then such innovations are the only way that a suitable solution is possible.

    As far as Qantas is concerned, you hope they are listening to this feedback. They plan on flying their 789s on long-haul routes and it would be a PR disaster if all the publicity when they eventually arrive centres on just how bad the Economy Class cabin is.

  2. comet

    The torture of passengers will continue unabated, unless people actively boycott these squeeze machines.

    Of course Alan Joyce is in favour of very tight economy seating. We could have guessed that, coming from the man who screwed his customers’travel plans by grounding Qantas.

  3. Blingwad

    One hopes that by the time Qantas settles on their configuration for the 787, airlines using 8 abreast seating will be realizing the benefits of it from a customer point of view, if they are not already. Surely there could be a good marketing campaign built around “largest economy seat across the pacific” given that that is where the aircraft will be first deployed.

  4. Crocodile Chuck

    “…or even a redefinition of what constitutes seat width, being the source of more space within the fixed confines of the cabin diameter” [snip]

    Paging Olivia Wirth!!

  5. Mayan

    Tombstone technology was a term used in a couple subjects when I studied engineering. Looking at the trouble many people have in getting in and out of their seats in normal times makes one wonder how on earth people will escape in an emergency. One day, will we find that they cannot. Only after hundreds of people have died might there be a change.

    Whilst Ben likes to throw in comments about obesity, the more salient challenges come from a general enlargement of population due to better nutrition, and an ageing population, with the arthritis and hip replacements that entails.

  6. [email protected]

    Virgin should be making hay with their 9 across 777s.

    Are they now the roomiest economy cabin on the Pacific crossing? If so, they need to advertise the fact.

  7. moa999

    Based on Seatguru (as reputable as that is) VAs are the widest. Albeit the QF 380/747 seat is more comfortable imho, and my pick of Y seats would be rows 32/33 upstairs on the QF A380 where its 2x4x2. Just don’t get 36D!

    Pax will not pay 20% more in fares for 8-across v 9-across – its just Y after-all

  8. Dan Dair


    Your points about “a general enlargement of population due to better nutrition, and an ageing population with the arthritis and hip replacements that entails” are well-made & accurate, but IMO quite irrelevant to this discussion.

    In order to certify a passenger aircraft, it has to have its evacuation test.
    The maximum number of people who can get in the 90 seconds time allowed, is the maximum number it can be certified to carry.

    They don’t use super-fit athletes for these tests, but they do use young & healthy individuals.
    This is a reasonable thing to do.
    It is not reasonable to expect a manufacturer to use a selection of arthritic, obese, old-people as the evacuation test-group.

    I don’t have any knowledge about how the (quite successful) evacuation of Asiana flight 214 was completed, but it has been well-documented just how badly the evacuation of the Manchester Airport (MAN) fire incident of flight KT28M went.
    People climbed over seat-backs & reported crawling over the dead or dying to reach the exits in an incident where nearly 50 people died but only six were actually killed by burns.

    Much has changed for the better as a result of the conclusions of the KT28M investigation, but there has to be some standard methodology for evacuation tests & the one which is currently in place seems like an acceptable benchmark.

    Anyone with an ounce of honesty & realism knows that the weakest in such a situation are the least-likely to make it out alive.

    A potential solution would perhaps be to consider significantly increasing the number of exit doors, but this would noticeably increase the airframe weight whilst at the same time actually weakening the structure and so it too becomes unrealistic.?

    The travelling public want a competitive ticket price, the airlines want a profitable airliner & the manufacturers will build something to meet those expectations, within the rules which currently govern aircraft manufacture. (& of course, being in an evacuation situation is now, thankfully, a distinct rarity as well.!)

    I would be nice to be able to be fully-supportive of your positive (& innovative.?) suggestion to mitigate the problem you’ve highlighted.
    I’m certain that airlines & manufacturers are already well-aware of that problem.
    As is so often the case, the problem is much easier to identify than it is to rectify.!

    (Separately, I’d be interested to know if the high-time flyers here (pilots & passengers) have ever been involved in an emergency evacuation. No details, just number of occasions.?)
    (Just a ‘straw-poll’ to identify how rare it actually is.?)

    (sorry…. that all turned into a bit of an epic rant.?)

  9. Deano DD

    Simple solution
    (working off BA seat map)
    Behind business, first or what ever
    Rows 10-27 2-4-2
    Rows 30-39 3-3-3
    Charge 15% more for 2-4-2
    All balances out
    Let the people decide

  10. NSJ4

    For 9 across seating, I wonder why airlines use 3-3-3 instead of 2-5-2. In the former version the aisle seats are the only ones worth having while window seats are 2 seats away from the aisle.

    In a 2-5-2 config, the window and aisle seats are almost like premium seating, especially for couples traveling together. In the middle rows, there is only one seat which is 2 seats away from the aisle, but unless the plane is full, those seats are the last ones used. When they aren’t, the adjacent 2 seats have an empty seat next to them, so the config is more like 2-2-2-2. Seems like a better arrangement to me.

  11. ggm

    We regulate crew levels. We regulate safety equipment. We regulate access to water. These are non-negotiables, a condition of landing and taking off from airports, from holding a licence.

    They are a level playing field.

    If we want to regulate seat pitch, we clearly can do it. Whats more, it would become a justified price barrier issue, since it would be a level playing field: everyone had to do it.

    Why do we have regulators, if we don’t actually ask, or require them to regulate?

  12. schaggee

    The evacuation test is done with a maximum passenger configuration, all passengers and crew are seated. For example, the A380 had 853 pax, 18 cabin crew and 2 flight crew on board for the test. The cabin crew were Lufthansa flight attendants. Kieran Daly participated in the test and has a pretty good description. Just google it to find the page. There are also videos of the passengers coming out of the aircraft on youtube. From Kiran Daly’s article,”EASA and FAA regulations require that 35% of the participants must be aged over 50, a minimum 40% must be female, and 15% female and over 50.”.
    Some other items to note:
    -50% of the exits must be disabled for the test and none of the participants know this in advance.
    -None of the participants should have detailed knowledge of the aircraft
    -I do not know if there are minimum seat pitch requirements but there are minimum aisle widths mandated by both EASA and FAA.
    -Based on observation of various flights on 737s and A320s, the exit door rows do seem to have minimum pitches.
    An amusing anecdote from the Bombardier Regional Jet test is that the test had to be repeated as a rather large mechanic was able to force open one of the “disabled” exits, not knowing it wasn’t supposed to function.

  13. michael r james

    #6 endeavour.paul
    #7 moa999

    15% and 20% ?
    [Pax will not pay 20% more in fares for 8-across v 9-across – its just Y after-all]

    According to my maths the difference is 12.5%, and I can’t see why the airlines would want to charge more than that. In fact the cost to the airline would be less than 12.5% in the 8 versus 9 config because the plane would be carrying less weight, and have fewer pax to service, while receiving the same income. (Or more paid freight.) So perhaps only ≈10% more expensive.
    Unless I am missing something?

  14. ghostwhowalksnz

    Check out your pricing theory deano?

    Air NZ flies 787-9 Perth to Auckland, they have 9 across economy section with some of those seats ‘extra pitch’ ( economy plus ?)
    As well there is ‘premium economy’,which is 7 across, has extra pitch and extra width seat.
    Do some booking tests to see what the extra dollars are ?

  15. patrick kilby

    I note EK has a greater seat pitch on its 10 across 777s than most (33″ rather than 31″), so maybe QF will do that.

  16. Ben Sandilands

    The last time I flew Air NZ was from AKL-SYD in an A320 in a middle seat on ticket described as ‘The Works’. It had no legroom, but the meal was top quality for an airline and the cabin crew smooth, cheerful and professional.

    The fare was about 3.5 times higher than discount no works, no nothing, and I could have flown return to Bangkok in economy for the approx $700 paid on Thai or Qantas if Webjet was to be considered accurate.

    At that fare I think AirNZ is fortunate to have such a strong brand that ridiculously high fares go unnoticed. I could have also flown the route in an EK A380 for maybe $50 more than the cheapest NZ fare, in a comfortable economy seat in a jet with wide aisles, wide seats and very good food and IFE included.

  17. ghostwhowalksnz

    Ben the other problem is that AIR NZ charges the locals much more for the flight AKL-SYD then the other way round.

    An interesting side effect of one of the most open and competitive air routes in the world ?
    Competition/deregulation doesnt bring prices down as anyone who uses Auckland taxis finds. You are paying more per km ( not ex airport) for a deregulated system here than the regulated system you have in Sydney.
    The only advantage is you can walk along the line of taxis to find the cheapest ‘rate’ and then a common tactic for those at cars at back of queue is negotiate a flat rate id you are familiar with distance and cost.

  18. Allan Moyes

    Mayan @ #5

    “and an ageing population, with the arthritis and hip replacements that entails”

    I’m not convinced airlines really want old people flying, certainly not if their webpages are anything to go by. I just did a spot check of each webpage for the OW alliance airlines and all of them show bright young things, mostly flying business class (if the airline has it).

    I know it’s advertising and, of course, unless it’s an ad for a stair-lift or incontinence pads, we all have to be at least below 30 before we count for anything in “ad world”.

    Perhaps the under 30’s these days have oodles of disposable income – I don’t know the research.

  19. [email protected]

    Air NZ just released a spectacular profit for the size of the airline.
    They are about to throw a 777-200 on to the new Auckland to Houston service. Is that taking Qantas on? It is for Australians who like to avoid Sydney airport.

  20. comet

    People are not only getting fatter. They’re getting taller too.

    Look at really old buildings. Melbournians can see it in Captain Cook’s Cottage. The doors are incredibly short. People back then were much much shorter.

    Now we’re taller and maybe fatter, so it’s ironic that the airlines respond by reducing seat size. But those who buy tickets on airlines that treat them like a sardine can’t complain.

    Before you buy your next air ticket, study the seat space and the aircraft type that the airline uses. If you shop around you can avoid getting squished.

  21. Ben Sandilands


    Very interesting pitch from NZ CEO on that and Jetstar’s prop-jet expansion. Have posted on this.

  22. keesje

    Take Qantas’ top 18 Management and put them in full 3-3-3 787 rows, after a long day, for a 14 hour flight, with their close families.

    Only thing that works.

    You have to understand they travelled F/J for the last 10-20 yrs and know economy class only from the numbers (they like).

    Of course there are $olution$. E.g. buy 787-10’s with the same seatcounts but 2-4-2 and A350s for the real long flights.

    Joyce said they will stick with the 787 and skip the A350. I think the 787s are small for QF & the A350 we be on table again soon. Probably he didn’t like the price asked.

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