Airbus surprised many by urging the adoption of 18in as the industry-standard seat width for long-haul economy class – but does an extra inch really make a difference?

Ask any regular economy class long-haul traveller if they would like an extra inch of seat width, and you would hardly be surprised if they said yes – why wouldn't they?

But would they pay extra for a slightly wider seat? Probably not.

However, if Airbus's most recent marketing campaign is to be believed, the twin desires for more personal space and rock-bottom ticket prices do not necessarily need to be mutually exclusive.

Facing the competitive threat posed by Boeing's latest generation twinjets – the 787 and recently launched 777X – coupled with the market dominance of the current generation 777 models, Airbus latched on to the fact that many operators of the US manufacturer's widebody twins choose to equip them with narrower seats than tend to be fitted to its own A330 and in-development A350 XWB models.

787 seating

A350 seating


The European airframer contends that Boeing customers are effectively forced to adopt cabin configurations featuring sub-17in seats in order to match the operating economics of Airbus equivalents with 18in-plus economy seat widths. This manifests itself in the nine-abreast economy cabins selected by the majority of 787 operators, versus the standard eight-abreast layout used on A330s. Further up the capacity scale, the typically nine-abreast A350 goes head-to-head with the 777, which some airlines operate in a 10-abreast configuration.

Airbus decided to launch its "It's not you, it's the seat" campaign at November's Dubai air show, despite one of its largest global customers – Dubai-based Emirates Airline – flying its huge 777 fleet with 10-abreast economy seating.

“It off-sided me a little bit," says Emirates president Tim Clark. "This one came out of the blue: ‘we have to have an 18in minimum width’. That’s an interesting one.

“Can we do an 18in-wide seat? Yes, everyone likes as wide a seat as possible. Why wouldn’t you? But the criticality of an 18in [seat] to the lower percentiles of perhaps the Asian markets? Not so important."

"In the American markets and some European markets, 18in is far too small," Clark argues. "In the end the important thing for me is to optimise the comfort levels with the least amount of structure and scale, but [not] compromise.

“I’m not saying that we design seats that are 15in or 16in. Width is important of course, articulation is important, the type of foam that you use in the cushioning and the seat backs, the width and type of the armrests, the tray tables that recline and so on and so forth. It’s just a combination of things – it’s not just about 18in."

"You could have an 18in seat that is the most uncomfortable seat that you could ever hope to sit on. The trick is to combine all of that with a newly-designed seat," says Clark.

Meanwhile, some A330 operators such as AirAsia X have ditched standard 18in seats in economy in favour of hip-squeezing nine-abreast layouts. Airbus offers the caveat that its campaign focuses on "full-service" economy products, rather than scheduled "low-cost long-haul" or charter operations.

Airbus head of passenger comfort, Kevin Keniston, says: “One inch makes a huge difference for passengers in economy, particularly on modern full-service long-haul flights that can be up to 18 hours."

The Toulouse headquartered manufacturer contends that 17in seats constrain passengers' natural movements to the extent that it is very difficult for them to enjoy a substantial period of uninterrupted sleep. The company has attempted to back this up with the results of a limited scientific study comparing sleep quality achieved in 18in versus 17in seats.

“The logic for the 17in seat is outdated," says Keniston. "With nearly 200,000 more flights over 4,000nm [7,400km] scheduled this year than 10 years ago, it is important that Airbus continues to provide products that maximise passenger comfort today and well into the future."

However, the fact remains that it is ultimately up to the airlines themselves to decide which seating configuration they wish to offer.

"We believe there is a disconnect in [Airbus's] message," says Mary Kirby, founder and editor of the Runway Girl Network passenger-experience news service. "The airframer continues to flog high-density versions of its widebody aircraft – which would bring seat width below 18in – and crucially, neither airlines nor seat manufacturers have gotten behind the programme.

"Indeed, I recently spoke with a major seat manufacturer about this very topic, and the executive sniggered at the thought that Airbus would try to dictate a standard to airlines."

Lufthansa is another airline that has expressed reservations. The German flag carrier's executive vice-president for group fleet management, Nico Bucholz, says: “We all know there is a certain limit on long-haul where [passengers] feel uncomfortable. But if you take, for example, the 747 and you sit in economy, is the seat width acceptable providing you have sufficient pitch? Maybe on a night flight you want to stretch your feet in front of you."

For its part, Airbus's arch rival Boeing says it was just as surprised by the Airbus campaign as Emirates' Clark.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes senior vice-president global sales, John Wojick, describes its competitor's call for a standard 18in economy seat as "arbitrary" and "obviously self-serving".

Wojick says: "Boeing's philosophy in all the widebody airplanes we produce is to offer the most choices for the travelling public that you can possibly do. You can put a 17.5in seat in our airplane, you can put an 18.5in seat in our airplane. Our objective is to provide the travelling public with a value choice.

"They can select the value that they perceive in travelling long-haul. Many people are very price sensitive, and they're looking for the opportunity to go visit family, friends or a vacation site, and they're price sensitive, even if that means sitting in a 17in seat."

"Why not demand that everybody has a first-class seat?" asks Wojick. "That certainly would limit an awful lot of people's ability to travel. So why have they picked 18in as the definition of what the seat should be?”

Airbus claims that although Boeing's 747 was introduced in the 1970s with 17in economy seats at 10-abreast, the 777 was introduced in the mid-1990s offering 18.5in seats in a nine-abreast configuration. The same approach was initially adopted for the narrower 787, which was marketed with eight-abreast seating to match the comfort level provided by the ultra-large A380.

“What we’re now seeing is a downward trend,” says Airbus's Keniston. “There is some backtracking. Why have [Boeing] gone from the 18.5in standard and dropped it to 17in – 10-abreast on the 777X and nine-abreast on the 787? The simple answer is to match our economics."

“Are we prepared to accept that the comfort standard from the 1950s is still going to be in place in 2040?,” he asks. “Airbus’s philosophy is and always has been to offer as standard an 18in seat in economy. That’s the standard we should all be working towards. We should be making passengers more aware about what they’re getting for their money.”

Runway Girl Network's Kirby says that in pure passenger-experience terms, what Airbus is proposing "is great, if the airframer would agree to adhere to its own standard".

She adds: "Passengers are growing wider and taller, and wider seats actually improve both comfort for larger passengers and legroom for tall, lean passengers."

"Obviously, there is more to the story from a competitive standpoint," says Kirby. "The 10-abreast 777 is super-snug, and yet carriers are selecting this configuration while tossing the latest and greatest in-flight entertainment at passengers as a means of distraction."

Source: Flight International