Can Airbus add seats to the A320 without irritating passengers?


With talk spreading in the industry that Airbus is looking to add six to nine more seats to the A320, we asked ourselves whether such a configuration would be technically possible, why the airframer might want to do it, and whether up to nine seats could be added to the A320 without negatively impacting the passenger experience and inducing inflight rage.

While Airbus has confirmed its interest in re-certifying the A320 to add seating capacity, it hasn’t publicly detailed its specific plan. Therefore, we sought insight from multiple industry sources that have deep knowledge of seating design, certification and installation.

There is a consensus that a 189-seat A320 is indeed possible to achieve. Experts explained that Airbus might be committed to such an effort in order to get the passenger numbers on the A320 closer to the passenger capacity of the Boeing 737-800, which can seat up to 189 passengers in single-class configuration. The reasons are entirely competitive, they suggest. Low-cost carrier Vueling reportedly placed its large order for A320s and A320neos with a caveat that the aircraft carry 186 seats. The A320 is currently certified for a maximum seating capacity of 180 seats.

The success of Airbus’ recertification project could hinge on adding seats without having to redesign the cabin cross-section, and/or increase the total number of exits available. From a simple mathematical standpoint, to get the total seats on an A320 close to a 737-800, Airbus would have to add one full row of seats (two seat triples). Just doing this would increase the total passenger count of an A320 to 186, which would, in turn, make an A320 just three seats short of the 737-800’s 189-seat capacity. From here, to get an A320 to 189 seats would only require one additional seat triple.

Conceivably, that final additional seat triple could be added through more efficient use of overall cabin space. As a source indicates: “Along with re-pitch of existing seats [closer together] and the addition of new seats, you can remove and replace existing components with smaller components that perform [the] same function; they just do not take up as much space.” Other elements of the cabin, such as an optimized galley or toilet facility could be introduced – both of these concepts were again showcased as options from designers and manufacturers at this year’s Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg.


Acro seats provide legroom even when pitched at 28 inches

A 189-seat A320 would require a 28-inch seat pitch, suggest some insiders, and this is one of the first objections taller passengers are likely to have to such a proposal. However, as Acro Aircraft Seating commercial director Cameron Allan points out, there are seats on the market specifically designed to provide a 28-inch pitch without sacrificing legroom.

“It’s no problem for our seats or indeed any seat which is certified for 28-inch pitch – equating to a 189-passenger layout on a 737-800 for example,” says Allan. However, he does indicate that the principle issue that Airbus and airlines would have to consider is the “impact to passenger satisfaction in such a configuration”.

The prime design objective of a seat, like those Acro produces, is to build the structure so that elements that might get in the way of passengers’ knees and shins, are designed-out. By changing the location and structure of seat-pockets, the built-in recline of the seat, the positioning and design of the tray table, and other key elements of the structure, seats designed for a 28-inch pitch can reduce the negative impact of a tighter seat configuration to the overall passenger experience.

Acro is not alone. Several manufacturers have recently introduced seating options that might accommodate Airbus’ plan. Recaro Aircraft Seating’s BL3520 offers a pitch range from 28 inches to 34 inches. Recaro’s SL3510 offers more cushioning at the seat bottom, and is also designed ergonomically to generate “more living space” for passengers. As Rene Dankwerth, VP of R&D at Recaro Aircraft Seating, tells us: “Both of the seats – the SL3510 and the BL3520 – support such a configuration at a 28-inch pitch and provide great comfort for the passengers at the same time.”

A recent entry into the aircraft seating market – which surprised the industry with a 4kg Titanium-composite seat – Expliseat offers another viable option. The weight advantage might prove attractive to airlines, and the cushioning and optimization of legroom and seat width might satisfy passenger need. This seat has been selected for a 220-passenger configuration on board the A321 fleet of Air Méditerranée.

Speaking to us for this report, Jean-Charles Samuelain, commercial director of Expliseat confirmed: “Our seat is certified at a 28-inch pitch and allows more space and comfort for passengers with 2 inches more legroom.”

In addition to showcasing new seats pitched at 28 inches at the Aircraft Interiors Expo, Zodiac Aerospace revealed seat concepts pitched at an even tighter 27 inches. The manufacturer believes these seats will pass certification. But the consensus among our sources seems to be that Airbus might not need to veer too far into the stuff of possible panic for passengers, in order to add capacity on the A320.

Other certification considerations, however, might prove more challenging. As a source explains: “Seat assemblies must be far enough apart to actually sit in, and yet narrow enough in order to not only meet the various airframe stay-out zone requirements, but the regulatory authority clearance and measurement requirements as well. From a regulatory authority standpoint, with the addition of passengers comes the re-certification of an aircraft, with or without having to modify or add exit doors/hatches. As a result, once an emergency escape test is conducted to see how long it takes [for] 186 or 189 passengers to get off an A320, with its current exit door and window quantity and designs, then the answer to this question will be available.”

So, when might we start seeing higher-capacity A320s in the sky?  Runway Girl Network can reveal that an effort to add seats is already underway in the retrofit market. As Allan revealed to us: “Acro [is] likely to implement such a layout on an A320 program next year, should the type certification be revised by Airbus to allow it.” Acro is also moving closer to line-fit offerability with the airframer.

(Top photo shows Acro seats)