The recent study released by Airbus calling for standardization of 18 inch width seats in economy has been considered somewhat self-serving by many analysts.  Boeing has countered stating that airlines should be free to choose the width of their seats, as they know their business best, a position that airline trade associations have agreed with.

A new advertising campaign from Airbus with the catchphrase “You Would Never Accept This” showing narrow with seating in other venues is rumored to be in process to attempt to differentiate one aircraft from another.

Airbus Comfort

The key, from an airline perspective, is economics. The A350XWB, for extra wide body, is not as wide as the 777, and cannot accommodate additional seats at 17 inch width.  The 777 can be configured with either 17 inch seats at 10 abreast or 18 inch seats at 9 abreast, providing airlines with a choice of configurations.

Our economic analysis shows that with 18 inch seat configurations, the A350 is about 9% better in seat-mile costs than the 777-9, but at 10 abreast, they are nearly dead even, with a slight advantage to Boeing on some routes.  Of course, being able to tout the “most efficient” aircraft is meaningful in aircraft marketing to airlines.

Like any decision in the industry, there are always trade-offs.  Seat comfort is not only dependent on seat width, but also seat pitch, which determines knee/leg room.  Recent trends towards deploying thinner seats, with optimized ergonomics, have allowed airlines to reduce standard pitch by 2 inches, cramming more seats into the same floor space.  The more seats, the better the economics for an airline.

The combination of narrow-seats crammed closely together is not an appealing prospect for passengers, who are faced with the trade-off of comfort versus price.  In many markets, these choices are clear – a low cost carrier (Ryanair, WizzAir) versus a mainline carrier (BA, KLM, LH) will have different standards of comfort, but also markedly different prices.  But for the long-haul twins, can seat width truly differentiate one airline from another, or one aircraft from another?

Air travel is a perishable commodity business, and in a perishable commodity business, the lowest cost producer wins.  As a result, the pressure will always be on to either match the low cost producer by cramming more seats into the same space, or to attempt to differentiate your product to bring it out of the “commodity” class.  Unfortunately, differentiation hasn’t worked very often in this industry.  How many “all first” or “all business” airlines have we seen fail, because they have been unable to distinguish themselves in the market?

A part of the problem is travel distribution.  When you go to choose a flight, most folks begin with day and time, then price, and that’s about as far as they go if they find something that is suitable.  Additional details, like the type of aircraft, are overlooked.  And seat width will be even more difficult to find than aircraft type in booking systems.  While resources are out there for comparison shopping, most customers don’t utilize seatguru.com or other resources when booking their trips.  While IATA is proposing a number of new features and more information for travel distribution, which will hopefully arrive soon, an airline still has to get behind that number one parameter, price, to differentiate itself in the decision process.

The problem for Airbus is differentiation.  Do customers get more value from flying an Airbus on a long-haul flight?  Some operators, including Emirates, the largest A380 operator, are using 11 abreast seating in economy, with 17.2 inch seats on their flagship.  While Airbus recommends 10 abreast, they aren’t going to refuse to sell airplanes to somebody who wants to utilize narrower seats.  In some ways, Airbus is boxed in on this issue.  While calling for an industry standard that best fits their models, they are also going against the wishes of some customers which prefer a choice.

This war of words is coming just before the Dubai Air Show, at which Boeing is expected to launch the 777-X with large orders from several Gulf carriers.  Convincing airlines that comfort sells may be a losing battle today, as we’ve seen adoption of the 10 abreast configuration for the existing 777-300ER grow substantially over the more roomy 9 abreast model.  The Boeing 777-300ER is nominally a 365 seat aircraft, but several airlines have crammed many more seats into some of their aircraft, including a 425 seat configuration from Air France and a 458 seat configuration from Air Canada.  In economy, it is very tight quarters, but these aircraft are used primarily on holiday routes where price is the primary decision factor, while more roomy configurations are used on routes with heavier business traffic.

Airlines want flexibility, and the ability to control their economics.  Passengers want lower prices, but also better information to comparison shop.  We hope that the benefit that results from this spat will be a focus on providing detailed comparative information to consumers, who can then evaluate whether it might be worth an extra $100 or $200 to fly long haul on a more comfortable airplane.

It all comes down to trade-offs, and knowledge is the key to effective decision-making.

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