In the wake of Airbus “Pinocchio” advertisement critical of economic claims by Boeing, AirInsight has decided to take an independent look at the economics of these to aircraft and compare the aircraft.

While both aircraft are the largest in their respective fleets, we don’t see them as direct competitors, as they are in much different seat classes.  This is like comparing an A319 with a 737-900ER, or an 737-700 with the A321.  While both are in the same class – narrow-body trunk liners – they would not normally compete against each other in an airline competition.

In estimating operating economics, each manufacturer will utilize a different set of economic assumptions, normally those that optimize the performance of their aircraft against the competitor.  And because cost per available seat mile (CASM) is such an important metric for airline fleet planners, the manufacturers often play with seating configurations as well to provide an advantage for their aircraft.  Comparing A380 and 747-8 have substantial differences between the two manufacturers in their methodologies, which lead to markedly different results.

One of the key elements of our analysis was an independent look at seating configuration.  Each manufacturer provides a seat comparison using three-class service.  But unless you read beneath the headlines and examine the seat-pitch assumptions behind the claims, you may miss a key lesson in how the manufacturers “stretch” the truth in their economic analyses.  In this case, Boeing claims the 747-8 to accommodate 467 in its economic analyses versus 565 for the A380, and Airbus claims the comparison should be 405 to 525 using different seat pitch assumptions.  The only current operator of both, Lufthansa, configures its aircraft with large premium cabins, and offers 362 seats in the 747-8 and 526 in the A380, and perhaps best illustrates the significant difference in seating capacity between each type for an operator offering a consistent service level.

The underlying assumptions about seat pitch are markedly different between the manufacturers:

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The difference is quite remarkable, particularly for Business Class seating in an era in which lay flat seats are becoming the international standard.

Boeing’s calculation of 467 seats in three classes for the 747-8i, shown in the diagram below, assumes 26 First Class seats with 61 inch pitch, 89 Business Class seats at 39 inch pitch, and 352 Economy seats at 32 inch pitch.   Using the same seat pitch standards, except for 48 inches in Business Class, Boeing calculates 565 seats for A380 using the same assumptions, but a more generous 48 inches for Business Class.

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Airbus, by contrast, calculates 525 seats for the A380, using 10 First Class seats at 81 inch pitch, 84 Business Class at 61 inch pitch, and 431 Economy at 32 inch pitch.  Applying those to the 747-8, the result would be 405 seats for the 747-8 with seven First Class at 82 inches,  74 Business at 61 inches, and 324 Economy at 32 inches.

Clearly, the Airbus assumptions are more consistent with modern seat configurations at major airlines, and a comparison of 405 to 525 is more realistic.

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A differential of 62 seats does have a significant impact on seat-mile economics, and illustrates one way in which the OEM’s tend to exaggerate their economic claims.  To gain a true picture, you need to look closely at the assumptions to avoid an “apples to oranges” comparison.

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