Airbus works to make 10-abreast A350 a smidge more comfortable

Less than a handful of Airbus A350 XWB customers have selected a 10-abreast configuration in economy class for the twinjet, which has been advertised in the past as offering individual seat width of just 16.4”. But Airbus has been quietly working on a configuration that would enable airlines to offer a seat that will be just shy of 17″ at 10-abreast, the airframer confirms.

Though “we haven’t launched it” yet, says Airbus executive VP, strategy and marketing Dr. Kiran Rao in relation to the smidge-more-room 10-abreast layout, “you can play with the angles on the sidewalls and you can play a little with the armrest and then you can be very clever with the design of the seat. It will be 16.8” or 16.9”, something like that.”

This compares to the A350’s standard 9-abreast layout with 18” wide seats, which offers “a very comfortable layout” that 99% of customers have chosen, says Rao.

“We have been able to demo a [near] 17” seat at 10-abreast on the A350,” he reveals.

AirAsia X flies 9-abreast Airbus A330s (which offer seat width of 16.5”, according to SeatGuru), and, according to Rao, AirAsia chief Tony Fernandes has confided that passengers on the A330 – generally smaller in size than the average westerner – don’t complain.

But he admits that while airlines can get away with offering 17″ or less on longhaul flights of 12 to 14 hours, and “people will put up with it”, the configuration is far from ideal and “it’s simply not comfortable”.

In offering sub 17″ seats on its newest widebody, Airbus is entering somewhat dodgy territory insofar as the 9-abreast Boeing 787 with 17″ seat width or below is already inspiring passengers to write songs about their discomfort in-flight. And Airbus has already ruffled feathers by tweaking its A380 to accommodate 11-abreast with 18″ wide seats in comparison to the 19″ standard 10-abreast layout on the super jumbo.

Rao is the first to admit that the difference between 17” and 18” width is noticeable. He notes, for instance, that he recently flew on an A320 narrowbody that had been configured with wider aisles and 17” wide seats (deviating from the standard 18” wide seat on the A320 as compared to the standard 17” wide seat on the 737), and that he recognized the difference immediately.

But, he explains, “we have a few customers for regional operations that will choose a narrower seat. If you’re doing regional flights, with the A330 or potentially the A350, then a sub 17” seat works for them. And if they want to go 10-abreast, we offer the choice. The point of my story is that we offer the choice. Boeing cannot offer the choice therefore they are forced to give all of their customers a narrow seat, and in turn, their customers offer an inferior product.”

The Airbus executive stresses that the economics of the A350 don’t require airlines to “go to that level of compromise”, and declines to disclose the airlines which have chosen 10-abreast for the traditionally 9-across aircraft, saying “I can’t give you the names of the customers.” Flightglobal in May 2012 reported that AirAsia X had ordered its A350s in two-class configuration, with 10-abreast in economy.

However, Fernandes this spring suggested at the CAPA Aviation Summit that the carrier isn’t taking A350s when he said, “We’ve given up on the A350.” AirAsia “fought hard with Airbus for the [re-engined] A330neo, and we really believe in that aircraft”, which will support further growth, possibly to the US, he added.