Airbus today released a research study regarding the ability to sleep on long-haul aircraft and its relationship to seat width. The study was conducted by the London Sleep Centre.
Dr. Irshaad Ebrahim commented that “all passengers experienced a deeper, less disturbed and longer night’s sleep in the 18 inch seat.” Of course, we’re also willing to bet that those who could afford the 22 inch wide full 180 degree reclining sleeper seat in business class would have an even better sleep experience. The following chart from Airbus summarizes the key findings.
As anyone whose ever flown in today’s economy seats can tell you, the 18 inch wide seats beat the standard 17 inch seats by a substantial margin. The question is whether 1 inch makes a lot of difference, and whether that difference will be enough for people to choose different aircraft or different configurations. And why is this so important for Airbus?
The 1 inch difference is important to Airbus, because their A350XWB has 18 inch seats in its high density economy configuration, versus either 17 or 18 for competing Boeing models, the 787 and 777. Boeing’s 777X, which will compete with the A350-1000, can be configured either in 9 abreast or 10 abreast configuration, which makes a substantial difference in seat-mile economics for an airline – about 11% for the economy cabin. Similarly, the 787 can accommodate 8 abreast with 18 inch seats, and 9 abreast with 17 inch seats. At the higher density, the smaller Boeing model has more favorable comparative seat-mile economics against the A350 than in lower density configuration.
Airbus has also noted the industry trend towards higher density seating. The following chart from Boeing illustrates the percentage of customers for the 777 program choosing higher density seating in recent years, and the trend is quite clear. The A350 is slightly narrower than the 777, and could only accommodate 10 abreast if it shrunk seat size to slightly over 16.5 inches, into which many of us today could not fit.
The split between high and low density seating is not simply along legacy to low cost carrier lines, although most LCCs choose the higher density configuration. Air France, for example, operates its 777-300ERs with 425 seats in high density configuration with 17 inch seats on its Caribbean routes, while Cathay Pacific has maintained the 18 inch comfort standard in 9 abreast for its 777-300ERs for Asian long-haul service.
The question is what will be the overriding factor – passenger comfort or economics – for airline fleet planners in the future. That may depend on how far Airbus and other OEMs are willing to push this issue. We’ve already seen lawsuits over DVT (deep vein thrombosis) that can result from long-haul flights; and wouldn’t an enterprising lawyer love to claim that lack of sleep from an inferior airline seat caused his client difficulties that require financial compensation? Is Airbus inviting the regulators to have a look at seating, and mandate the larger seat? While it would help them competitively, does the industry really want this to become a matter for regulators and bureaucratic decision making?
Even in the narrow-body world, we’ve seen some interesting twists on seat width. Bombardier offers a wider middle seat on its CSeries, and Airbus has proposed, without any takers yet, a 17-17-20 inch configuration in an economy triple in order to generate premium revenue for aisle seats. The market should be fully capable of evaluating alternative configurations, and it appears Boeing has an advantage in flexibility with its wide body twins.
So what’s the bottom line? The research tells us that we are intuitively right when thinking about larger seats, and 1 inch can be very important, and perhaps a good reason to upgrade to premium economy. But it also tells us that Airbus is quite worried about the high density configurations from Boeing that are economically quite attractive to LCCs and other airlines, because they have the flexibility to be configured with either 17 or 18 inch seats, depending on the airline’s needs, while the A350 has the 18 inch standard.
But how many passengers really know, or care enough to make a choice of airplane, rather than time, date, price, and airline first? There’s an education process required if Airbus is to use comfort as a differentiator, and this may be the first shot across the bow at Boeing. But are airline fleet planners listening to customers, or their CFO who signs their paychecks seeking the lowest possible costs?