Boeing is stepping up efforts to help its embattled customers by "re-inventing" economy class, and coming up with cabin design features that improve passenger comfort and airline yields on longer-haul flights, without increasing the cost to operators.

This sounds like an impossible conundrum, yet according to Boeing passenger satisfaction and revenue director Klaus Brauer it can be done. "If we can make the people more comfortable without it being too expensive to the operator, then it's the Holy Grail," he says. Yet the airlines are still flying passengers in the same shaped tube with the same amount of internal floor space, so how will it work?

"It is all about how to make people more comfortable in the same space. I have been accused of 'tricking' people into being more comfortable. But what does that mean...does a soft cushion 'trick' you into feeling more comfortable? We know that people who are on a short-to-medium range flight that is delayed by 30min or more rate legroom lower than those who departed on time. A 30min delay has seven times the impact of a 1in [25.4mm] change in seat pitch in terms of rating. But does the legroom actually change? No. Did the perception of legroom change? Absolutely. It is more psychological than physiological."

But as distance increases, comfort becomes more critical, particularly with the growth of ultra-long-haul point-to-point services. One of the key battles airlines face, particularly on these inter-continental routes, is the struggle to regain lost revenue from the silent majority of business travellers who are forced by tight budgets to travel in economy. These are often flyers whose hard-pressed corporate travel departments have "scored garbage fares", says Brauer. Surveys by the company indicate more than 40% of inter-continental business travellers flying between Europe and Asia, and between Asia and North America travel in economy. "What do we do to get these 'solo' business travellers back?" he asks.

The answer might be found in a series of concepts to be revealed by Boeing at the forthcoming Aircraft Interiors Expo 2004 show in Hamburg, Germany. "We're looking at separating economy into two products; one section for solo business and tourist travellers and another for the family tourists. The difference between the two is seat width," says Brauer. As implemented in the 7E7, the new-look arrangement would see the creation of a nine-abreast "family" tourist section at a 32in seat pitch, and the removal of a row in the mid-cabin to produce a "solo traveller" section with eight-abreast at 35in. The result transforms a baseline 7E7 with two conventional economy sections with 90 and 84 seats into a solo economy section with 82 seats and standard tourist section with 92 seats, respectively.

The change is more pronounced in the stretch. This, configured to seat 288 in a standard tri-class arrangement, would normally accommodate up to 242 economy passengers in two sections holding 129 and 113 seats respectively. In the "solo" format, the changes could be used to differentiate the cabin with a 10-abreast layout creating eight extra seats and taking the total overall economy load to 296 seats, 129 of which would be solo. Various combinations of these formats are being studied, another showing a total of 284 economy seats of which 120 could be solos at 35in pitch and 118 standard tourists at 34in pitch.

Brauer says the differentiation should be enough for the airlines to "hang tough for 'M' [class] or better fares in the solo" section, and assuming this would generate around 18% higher fares from selected passengers, would generate up to 4% in total revenue. Although not sounding very significant, those inside the airline industry would see this as practically doubling the profit for a carrier operating at a 4% margin.

To continue to attract the higher yield business passenger, the company is also studying an evolution of the fully reclining, pod-type seats now found mostly in some first-class sections. In the 7E7 in the five-abreast configuration, Boeing is evaluating a concept in which the outboard seat pair pivot as a single unit.

Airbus Deutschland is also studying a similar concept, but in the case of the Stuttgart-based design team, the pivoting and reclining seats would be single units aligned in an aisle along the sides of the cabin with a double row of reclining seats in the centre of the cabin. Interior designers, it seems, are getting the message that space counts and are waking up to the attractions of being able to lay down.

Source: Flight International