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Apr 6, 2017

Airbus plays the wider seat card with higher capacity A380s

To crudely borrow from fashion media terminology Airbus says your bum will look better in an A380

It’s not all about economy class. This is the Airbus Day and Night premium flyer cabin concept.

Way back, when Airbus persevered with its plans to launch the A380, no-one appears on the public record as having envisaged that in less than 10 years of service it would have to compete with Boeing 777s, and even its own A330s, which were crammed full of more seats than its customers would put into some of its giant ‘Air Liners’.

The triumph of the dismal maths of “packing them in until they scream” never crossed anyone’s minds.

But earlier this week, at an event in Hamburg, Airbus struck back, revealing a suite of ‘enablers’ that could add a total of 80 additional seats to an A380 while retaining an economy class seat wider than any that is possible in a people-kompressor version of any of its own smaller jets or the Boeing line-ups, including the big American’s 787 and 777 families.

This is reasonably good news if you are a normal sized adult or teenager not into grinding your hip bones into those of strangers flung into close personal proximity in a cripplingly tight ten across 777 seat row, or nine across in a 787, or indeed, in an Airbus A330, which was designed, before the dark age of densification set in, for seat rows only eight seats across.

Not so good news is that one of the A380 ‘enablers’ bumps up some economy seats rows on the main deck to 11 across, even though it retains the same seat width as found in all of today’s A380s on the main deck by cleverly exploiting the shape of that part of the jet’s side walls and aisles and so forth.

In an 11 across seat row, no matter how wide the cushion space might be, there is a central block of five seats, and one of them is two rather than one seat in from both aisles. These 11th seats are generally occupied by someone who gets meal trays dropped on top of them by cabin crew leaning Tower of Pisa style over the similarly endangered passengers closer to them.

Wearing the contents of your meal for a flight stage that might last more than ten hours is unamusing.

But maybe that ‘enabler’ mightn’t be used. Airbus says the extra seats can help lift A380 loads to 575 seats in a four class layout, but Emirates for example already flies two class versions of the giant Airbus with 615 seats without either resorting to 11 across formats or demolishing its much loved business class bar area at the back of the top deck.

(Most of the Emirates A380s seen at Australian airports are fitted out as three class 489 seat aircraft.)

It is impossible to quantify the operational benefits to airlines of an extra 80 seats in an A380, other than to state the obvious that it would have a very positive benefit in terms of lowering average seat-times-distance costs.

This is because no one can agree on what the starting point for a multi class A380 would be in terms of capacity divided between various classes of cabin. The A380 earns a premium for operators where they can sell larger and better business, first class and economy seats against the less amenable offerings on tight fit maxed out 787s, 777s and A330s.

The simple minded stuff about four engines being cheaper to fly than twin engined designs ignores the fact that the larger jet does so with the same number of pilots, and for a given sized market, only uses half as many slots at congested airports, and should pay less navigation charges to access the often congested airspace between them.

They can also take off with fuller potential payloads from heat affected airfields and don’t incur some of the maintenance costs that apply to ETOPS rules for big twin engined Airbuses or Boeings.

At the end of the day, the airline on a heavily used route that can uplift the most passengers per flight (and happier passengers at that) is going to do better when it comes to keeping the higher paying, more frequently flying part of the customer mix.

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19 comments

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19 thoughts on “Airbus plays the wider seat card with higher capacity A380s

  1. Zarathrusta

    Did you actually mean “simple minded stuff about two engines being cheaper to fly than quad engined designs…”?

  2. Ben Sandilands

    Airline economics is about the total costs of carrying a certain number of people a certain distance at a worthwhile margin. This includes high volume routes with restricted airport slots and air navigation corridors. If one plane carries twice as many people for the same piloting costs, half the navigation charges, half the terminal rentals (which are often slot rather than size based, because the airport operator wants the per head fee for any given slot to be as high as possible) then simple minded arguments for any position start to unravel. The more so if the larger aircraft has more creature comforts at any price point than the smaller option. The capital costs of acquiring jets also declines per installed seat as the size of the jet rises. Thus it is more capital efficient to get 777s versus multiples of 737 MAXs to address a North Atlantic route that both could with new tech engines otherwise do well. Check out Emirates on the topic of twin engined MTOW limitations at DXB 49C, which it insists have to be overcome by the 777-X. I think there are a huge number of ‘wrinkles’ ranging from aircraft prices to crewing costs, nav charges and separate maintenance streams for left and right hand engines on big twins that tend to get glossed over in discussions. We shouldn’t be talking in terms of good aircraft versus less good aircraft, but about excellent designs that have individual characteristics that will strongly influence variable operational and marketing outcomes.

    1. comet

      Interesting points, Ben, though I think Zarathrusta was subbing your text. You might have the words ‘twin’ and ‘quad’ reversed from what you intended in your story.

    2. 777 Steve

      Ben, the simple metric that needs to be applied here is ask yourself, how many 4 engine pax aircraft are currently being sold v comparable twin engine versions? Airlines have a far better understanding of the true costs involved including crewing, maintenance, overflight charges etc.
      The 380 fulfilled a niche, nothing more…most pax will endure 14hrs of discomfort to save $2.99 on a ticket.

      1. Arcanum

        Spot on. The sales results speak for themselves.
        I would add that the A380’s niche (flying massive numbers of passengers into slot-constrained airports) has not materialized, or at least not fast enough. The plane was basically designed for LHR, but while several foreign airlines fly their A380s there, BA only operates a handful and VS has none at all. Why? Because it doesn’t actually suit their business model.
        On any given day, BA/AA operate about 10 widebody flights from JFK-LHR between 1800h and 2300h. DL/VS run another 7. Could some of those be consolidated by using an A380 instead of two 777s? Absolutely. But they won’t do that because their business travellers want frequency.
        The A380 works best in long-haul markets with demand for high capacity but low frequency (SYD-LAX, FRA-JNB, CDG-SFO). It’s a very economical plane when you can fill it. Of course, if you can’t fill it then adding another 80 seats doesn’t solve your problem.

  3. chris turnbull

    Sadly one of the ‘innovations’ is to replace the grand staircase with a cramped utilitarian substitute.

  4. Vincent O'Donnell

    ETOPS maintenance or not, my prejudice is simple: 4 minus 1 = 3; 2 minus 1 = 1.
    And both the Indian and Pacific Oceans are not exactly over served with big runways.

    1. comet

      Flying on long oceanic routes, fire would be a much greater risk than engine failure.

      An aircraft fire that can’t be extinguished requires landing within 18 minutes (on average) before the aircraft and its occupants are lost.

      Four engines and ETOPS don’t help here.

      1. Dan Dair

        That’s very true,
        but there to be no solution to that problem, other than making seaplane hulls compulsory for long overwater flights.?

  5. caf

    Don’t the window seat passengers in any 3+N+3 arrangement have the exact same meal tray problem already (down to and including N=0)?

  6. Tango

    I think our bums feels better not looks better. No one ever said mine was better with a narrow seat or without!

    What gets lost is what I view as Alaska Airliens as a model.

    The Anchorage Seattle routes justifies a 767. They just use a lot of 737s (and maybe A321 soon).

    It works flexibility wise for them. They did fly 707 at one time.

    Not all routes are like that, or airlines, that’s why its such a hard thing to succeed at, like chess, after one move the options get bewildering and there are lots of winning strategies.

    I do have it on an engineer experts opinion and backed up, that 4 engines are not automatically worse than two. Engine choice has a lot to do with it.

    On reason for the A340 demise was they picked the wrong engines original (CFMs) that are not long haul engines.

    The other thing to think about is, if you can’t fill it at 469 , what does adding 80 more comfortable seats do to you?

    That’s the flip and downside to the A380. You have to fill it to make it work.

    1. comet

      Tango said: “I think our bums feels better not looks better. “

      I’ve seen videos demonstrating how to do buttock exercises in a narrow economy seat, so you never know.

  7. comet

    There are already numerous congested airports around the world that have no more peak capacity.

    London Heathrow, Chicago O’Hare, Tokyo Haneda, Dubai, Hong Kong, Beijing Capital, Guangzhou, Jakarta, São Paolo, Sydney etc etc.

    Yet many airlines operating out of these constrained airports have no A380s or 747-8is. Air China, Garuda, JAL, Cathay Pacific, American Airlines, United – to name a few – have no Very Large Aircraft.

    So it’s a mystery why A380 sales are low, and the 747-8i is on its death bed. How can an airline operating a hub inside a capacity-constrained airport not be interested?

    1. Dan Dair

      Comet,
      I think that the size & price of the A380 is a big stumbling block.
      I think, as does Ben & many others, (not least Mr & Mrs Airbus.!!) that the A380 is the obvious choice to resolve the problems you highlight.
      The issue for me has been that what was unthinkable 15-20 years ago, in terns of seat pitch & width, has become the accepted norm for most airlines.
      This has set-back the ‘event-horizon’ for the date when airlines simply can’t manage without VLA’s.
      Since the B747 program is all but over, the VLA market only has the A380 in it. If Airbus can afford to keep ‘subsidising’ that product for the time-being, the market will inevitably come to it & when it does it will ripple right through the market.
      Once one of the major US players gets them, it is almost inevitable that the others will have to & so on…… Whether it’s for slot constraints or for prestige-value.?
      (probably the same would be true for Japan and other multi-carrier nations too.?) (& I’m actually really, really surprised that Pakistani & Indian airlines have never taken them.???)

      Perhaps all these potential user-airlines are waiting for A380’s to come onto the second-hand market to see how low a price they can get one (or more) for & work-out their future metrics on that basis.?
      Time will tell, SIA have already said they’re going to dump their old A380’s & trade them in for new this year.

    2. Arcanum

      With respect to airport capacity, it’s not been as limited as predicted. There are also a number of mitigating factors:
      1. DXB, PEK, and SYD are being supplemented by new airports.
      2. LHR, HND, and HKG have added or will add additional runways.
      3. ORD is up to 8 runways (for a similar passenger volume as LHR handles with 2).
      4. HND does not allow A380 flights.

      From an airline perspective, there are also several considerations:
      1. VLAs are only economical if they can be filled, and few routes have that level of demand.
      2. High-value premium customers want frequency, not capacity (hence why CX operates multiple 777s to LHR instead of buying A380s).
      3. 777s/787s/A330s/A350s are easier to shuffle around and swap out than A380s, which are effectively a separate subfleet.

      As for your question about the airline with a hub at a constrained airport, think about it from a competitive perspective. Slot restrictions = capacity limitations = high fares. Dumping in capacity with an A380 lowers revenue if you have to discount those extra seats to fill them. Hub carriers (especially BA at LHR) also have captive customers who will pay a premium for direct flights. Instead of flying an A380 to SFO, perhaps you fly 787s to SFO+SJC and make more money. That’s how BA gets away with such an inferior product. It’s also important to remember that just because an AIRPORT is slot-constrained doesn’t mean an AIRLINE is. If BA wants to increase capacity on LHR-AUH, they can cancel one of their 20 daily flights to DUB and use those slots to add another flight to AUH. EY would have to spend millions buying slots if they wanted to do the same. That’s one of the reasons you see many foreign carriers flying A380s INTO London but the home carriers flying few OUT OF it. Ultimately, expansion of a constrained airport (be it bigger planes or more slots) can be more beneficial for outside airlines than the local hub carrier.

  8. Socrates

    Can I ask an ignorant question to those here who know? I have to travel from Adelaide to France and return later this year. What is the most comfortable way to do it? Any views on Etihad versus Emirates? How do you find out what seat width you get from Adelaide? Qantas/Emirates have direct flights advertised, via Dubai in a 777. How squishy are the Emirates 777s?

    1. Ben Sandilands

      Hi Socrates,
      Unfortunately both carriers use the 10 across configurational abomination in their 777s. However, if the new Midfield Terminal in Abu Dhabi opens in time for your trip that airport hub experience with Etihad is likely to be better than can be the case at the Emirates hub at Dubai.

      1. Socrates

        Thanks Ben. That is the (unpleasant) information they try to hide from you. I will add some thoughts to your current post question on airline quality that relate to this sort of dilema. I travel a fair bit for work, but am not in the exploiter classes who get to enjoy business class travel. Some of my experiences in cramped planes (notably 4 hr flights to Perth full of FIFO miners) have been so unpleasant I wonder if flying is becoming an OH&S issue.? I do the various exercises to minimise DVT but it is still wretched. I am six feet tall and broad across the shoulders to the extent that my shoulders are wider than many seats. So narrower armrests are irrelevant. Statistically I am not that rare – probably 1/3 of adult males are my size or bigger, and that is before we even consider rising obesity.

        In my line of work (transport engineering) we have revised many design standards in the past decade to recognise the fact that human beings have gotten larger. All but one of the male graduates we have hired since 2010 have been 180-190cm tall. Now this is starting to happen in China and Japan as well. How long before airlines are forced to face this fact?

        1. Dan Dair

          Socrates,
          “How long before airlines are forced to face this fact?”

          IMO it’s going to be an issue until an airline can make a success of an alternative marketing strategy.?

          Price is still the all-important point for the vast majority of passengers. But at the same time people like yourself & many others are very unhappy with the product they have purchased. I would venture to suggest that for economy passengers, customer satisfaction levels have probably never been so low.?

          The problem, as I see it, is that like the petrol price-wars you sometimes see between rival brands, it takes balls to back away from a bad strategy first when everyone’s doing it.?
          It needs someone with a bit of sense & an understanding that this is going to cost them in the short-term but will be well-worth it in the longer term.

          But they also know that being the first to make this move may not be the smart thing to do economically.
          Being second or third might be.? You let someone else lose the big-money in the short-term whilst they get their (& your) message across. Once the world can see & understand the strategy, then you pile-in with a big advertising campaign to reinforce the change & reap only rewards.?

          If I’m correct, you can see why no-one wants to be first in the queue to change.????