Airbus launched a campaign lamenting17 inch seats for long-haul flights, citing the 18 inch standard for its new A350XWB aircraft in direct contrast to the narrow seats that will be standard on Boeing’s 787 with 9 abreast, and 10 abreast for 777 configurations.  The ad series is clever, and aimed squarely at comparing the Airbus A350 with the Boeing 777X.

The size of the A350, an aircraft wider than the 787, but narrower than the 777, provides the capability for 9 seats abreast in economy at 18 inches, but is unable to accommodate 10 abreast seating without shrinking to a 16.5 inch seat, while the 777 readily accommodates 10 abreast at a 17 inch seat width.

How does this affect airline economics?  The obvious answer is lower seat-mile costs for the more densely packed aircraft.  But depending on the standard for seating that you choose, it can change which aircraft claims the honor of best economics in its class.  And those bragging rights mean something to manufacturers who advertise their aircraft as the lowest cost option for airline customers.   But the world is not always “apples to apples” in comparison, and when an “orange”, like the 777X, with 10 abreast seating with 17 inch width gets thrown in, economic comparisons can begin to change.

If we take a peek at the wide body market, from smallest to largest of the current models, we can compare the economics for feasible seating configurations, including tighter and more comfortable layouts to provide both “apples to apples” and “apples to oranges” comparisons:

  • The Boeing 787 typically accommodates 9 abreast in economy, with seat width of 17.3-17.5 inches, depending on carrier.  It can also accommodate a premium economy configuration of 8 abreast with 18.5 inch seats.
  • The Airbus A350XWB also typically accommodates 9 abreast in economy, with a seat width of 18 inches.  It can also accommodate a premium economy configuration of 8 abreast with 19 inch seats.
  • The Boeing 777 and 777-X typically accommodates 10 abreast in economy, with a seat width of 17 inches, or a 9 abreast configuration with a seat width of 18 inches.
  • The A330 typically accommodates 8 abreast in economy, with a seat width of 17 inches, or a 9 abreast configuration with a seat width of only 16.5 inches for charter and very low cost carrier operations.
  • Boeing’s 747-8 typically accommodates 10 abreast in economy with a seat width of 17-18 inches.
  • Airbus A380 typically accommodates 10 abreast in economy with a seat width of 18 inches, and Emirates is examining an alternative 11 abreast configurations with 17 inch seats.

Of course, seat width isn’t the only factor.  Seat pitch, the amount of room between rows, is also important as it dictates legroom.  While new thin line seat designs enable reduced pitch with similar legroom, the combination of narrow seats placed closely together can create a claustrophobic cabin in economy, especially for long-haul flights.

So what does it mean for economics?  Let’s take an apples to apples comparison for a 5,000 nautical mile mission with $3.25 fuel, and AirInsight’s standard assumptions for crew costs, landing fees and other operating costs, and see the impact on operating economics.

The following chart shows aircraft mile and seat-mile costs for each aircraft in their most aggressive configuration, using the tightest seat width possible and standard economy class seat pitch of 31-32 inches – the sardine can configuration.  We utilized a two class configuration for 787-8 and A350-800, and a three class configuration for all other aircraft.  For tight seating, we utilized 17 inch seating, but for A350 utilized 18 inch seating, as we are not comfortable with the 16.5 inch seats that are sometimes equipped by ultra low cost or charter carriers.

It is notable, in this configuration, that the 777-9X has slightly lower seat-mile costs than the A350-1000, and is even slightly better than the A380 on the same metric.

Now, if we move seating to an 18 inch standard, the economics begin to change a bit.  This chart shows the comparative economics at the more comfortable standard Airbus is pushing.  Naturally, Airbus comes out on top in this analysis in seat-mile costs when comparing the  9-abreast A350-1000 against a 9-abreast seating 777-9X.

The Bottom Line
Each of the manufacturers is a master of spin, and will publicize data that will place their aircraft in the most favorable light, using the most favorable assumptions possible.  But when you cut through the hyperbole and utilize hard independently produced economic estimates, the picture can begin to change.

For these models, the economic performance is quite comparable, with differences in seat-mile costs quite small, especially when compared with the models they are replacing.  We’ve expanded the scales in our charts to keep data points from being atop one another, and when the scales are expanded, the clustering of these aircraft is quite clear.

Airbus is correct that using an 18 inch standard, their A350-1000 would beat the larger 777X in seat-mile economics.  But if the maximum capacity is used, the 777X gains a seat-mile cost advantage over the A350-1000, albeit with lower comfort levels in seat width.  So both manufacturers will claim the best economics – each based on different comfort standards and apples to oranges comparisons.

The ultimate decision will be made by the airlines, and whether they believe they can provide competitive differentiation using seat width.  Some carriers, such as Singapore and Cathay Pacific, utilize 9 abreast seating on their 777s, while Emirates and Air France utilize a 10 abreast configuration.

Judging by the upward trend in 10 abreast configuration for existing 777 orders, and the successful launch of 777X, it does not appear that the width of economy class seats is a major priority for airlines today, despite Airbus’ wishes, and ours as passengers, that it would be.

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