Negative feedback prompts British Airways to widen seats for 787-9


British Airways is installing a new economy class seat on its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner after negative feedback from passengers, Runway Girl Network can report.

The news comes from British Airways’ internal magazine Up to Speed, “the monthly magazine for British Airways employees, focusing on the strategy and the people who make the airline”.

Kathryn Doyle, who works on product development as British Airways’ Aircraft Product Cabin Interiors Manager, is quoted as saying, “Teams have been working on the plans for the cabin interiors, and in particular the evolved First cabin, for two and a half years.” 

“Club and World Traveller Plus haven’t changed, but we’re putting a slightly wider seat into World Traveller. Front-line colleagues shared feedback from customers on the 787-8, who said the seats felt a bit tight,” Doyle says.

That’s some quintessentially British understatement there, with width a frequent complaint about 3-3-3 economy seats on a Dreamliner, and why the 787 has come to be seen by many as an aircraft to avoid.

“We listened to that,” Doyle continues, “and challenged our seat supplier to come up with a solution that would achieve parity with competitors and satisfy customers. The result is a seat that is half an inch wider, which we believe will improve customer comfort.” 

It’s unclear where the extra half an inch per seat – 4.5 inches across the entire row of nine — will come from. British Airways has not yet responded to RGN’s request for information about where this extra width has been gleaned, nor regarding the measurements of the new seats. There are, however, really only a few options BA can choose from, which have all been tried in the industry previously.

The first option to discount is turning the Dreamliner into an economy class dream by operating an eight-across cabin. The seatmaps that clearly show a nine-abreast cabin (see below) dash that hope even more than Doyle’s oblique mention of “parity with competitors”, which does rather sound like “just as terrible as everybody else’s”.

The second possibility is a slimmed-down armrest. This, of course, is viewed by some as a spurious way to claim extra seat width (as Southwest tried to claim earlier this year), and is based on measuring seat width between the armrests rather than at the armrests: measurement B on the chart below.

Which is the actual width of a seat_

Which is the actual width of a seat?

Counting an increase in seat width based on measurement B would only be acceptable if airlines had always publicised their seat measurements that way; this is not the case.

The third possibility is that the airline has reduced the width of the aisles by 2.25 inches each. Regulatory minima for aisles are 16 inches between armrests, yet in reality anything less than around 17 involves a significant amount of hip-to-shoulder contact between passengers walking down the aisle and those seated in aisle seats. Boarding is slowed because rollaboard bags do not fit down the aisle, and service becomes more inefficient because trolleys become harder to navigate (as Air New Zealand discovered when its 2011 arrival of 3-4-3 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, which had similar problems). This tension is not new — easyJet and Northwest both plumped for skinny seats and wide aisles on their A319 aircraft for faster boarding reasons — but neither is there an unlimited or consequence-free amount of space to slice from the aisle.

BA tried an ultra-narrow seating configuration in the late 1990s when it converted leisure 777s based in its Gatwick holidaymaker hub to a 3-4-3 layout, but was swayed to reverse its decision after customer complaints.

That BA has now had to modify its economy class in a second aircraft type suggests that it hasn’t learned from past mistakes.

Cabins above economy take up a good two thirds of the sections of the British Airways 787-9

Cabins above economy take up a good two thirds of the sections of the British Airways 787-9


    • And yet, pax continue to fly on aircraft similarly configured. That’s almost the ONLY measurement airlines listen to: Are our seats full?

      Ok, slight simplification… But still…

  1. Mavis M

    I find it hard to imagine 3-3-3 would be too tight but I guess it is down to the size/type of seats used.

    Still, it has got to be better than e.g. Air France (which I no longer fly if I can avoid it) which still has a 3-4-3 configuration on its 777s. Hell on wings.

    • Ivan

      I find hard to imagine 3-3-3 would be too Big for most normal human being. And let’s be honest. More and more people avoiding B777 as well. B787 is not the only one out there.

  2. Robert Spiller

    tabular chart in article has 4 columns of figures, but no column headings for the numerical data. It would be helpful if you labeled column headings, so we would know what your figures purport to describe.

    • Pundit

      Robert – Generic three- (and four-)seat units of different overall sizes available across the global fleet could account for the four columns, which provide a breakdown of elemental dimensions within apparently standard seat units… Just a thought.

  3. Old Timer

    Message for anyone involved in designing an economy cabin for the 787: Try a long haul flight in a Qatar 787 and see what cramped feels like. Go on, get off your drawing board and try it.

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  5. Ross

    i have flown the 787-8 twice. Once with BA in premium economy and once with Air Canada in economy. The economy seat experience from YYZ to YVR to Shanghai was extremely tight and made worse by the solid fixed sides to the bulkhead seats. The aisles are also narrow. I have since used other airlines for this trip just for that reason. The Dreamliner flight experience is great from the aspect of it not drying you out but with those seats, I’ll pass thank you. Very uncomfortable.

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    • Jason

      Not really, since the A350 has a wider cabin than the B787. Meaning 3-3-3 on the B350 is 18in vs 17in for the B787.

      I don’t know why airlines are buying this nasty B787 or the much better A350!!!

  7. Karen Kennedy

    I immediately thought the headline was stolen from The Onion, but then I saw it’s real. I’m freaking underwhelmed.

  8. Rob

    Could they be using custom seats on the windows that conform to the contour of the side, so that they can utilize the extra width? This seat would have lower head clearance and less width available at your feet and for the storage under the seat, but is it possible?

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  10. TheInternationalLine

    BA’s 787s are currently TERRIBLE in economy — the absolute worst.

    I am a thin person, and the seats on this plane made me feel morbidly obese, especially in the exit row with fixed armrests. After 12 sleepless hours and an inability to move my legs or arms except when going to the (filthy) lavatory, a coworker and I vowed “never again”. To BA’s credit, the crying child in the bassinet seat next to us puking in the aisle and throwing half-full soda cans at my coworkers head for a good portion of the flight did provide a distraction from the seating situation.

  11. George

    This is a classic problem to be solved by REGULATION. If they state they are sticking to 3-3-3 for competitive reasons, then a regulatory declaration will make a level playing field.

    Mind you: we’d pay. But on the basis nobody can get landing permits on narrow seats, I ask myself how much more we’d pay? Because the 12.5% drop in Economy, would be partially offset by better flight weight, longer duration, and higher hold availability for freight. So its not as simple as a 12.5% income loss.

    And, remember: its a level playing field if its regulated. You don’t find them sneaking in flights without liferafts, or safety belts, or no water to drink. All weight, all affect profit but all required to be present.

    We have regulators for a reason: lets invoke them.

  12. Actually, John, this news came from Business Traveller where the story appeared two days before here. We love reading Runway Girl, and when we get a story from you, we give credit.

    • Mary Kirby

      Hi Tom,

      I actually assigned this story to John after receiving a PDF of the British Airways ‘Up to Speed’ article from a frequent flyer via Twitter DM. Accustomed to seeing Runway Girl Network content regularly copied and even stolen outright by other publications, I understand your concern, but I can tell you that this editor had no knowledge of your story until both pieces cropped up in a Google search.

      Going forward, may I recommend that you consider using the #PaxEx hashtag when tweeting about Business Traveller stories on Twitter? Industry stakeholders, media and travelers from around the world are now sharing articles via this hashtag, and it ensures that interested parties are immediately informed of a story, and journos have complete visibility into who is writing what and when.

      editor & publisher

  13. In that case, I apologise. I’m sure you can understand how after our story has been published for 48 hours, shared hundreds of times and appeared on both Twitter and Facebook and then you publish the story I might think that you might have noticed it.

    In addition I believe we have complete visibility by simply publishing the piece, and we don’t have a responsibility to hashtag the pieces in a particular manner to ‘prove’ it, though I welcome the suggestion. After all, a simple google search would have produced the piece, but on this occasion it seems to have been missed.

    Many thanks for approving the comment on your piece.

  14. Mary Kirby

    Tom – to be clear, nobody is asking you to use a hashtag to prove you wrote a piece. It’s just a simple suggestion for you to consider going forward as it will not only ensure that the world’s leading #paxex journos are aware of your article, but that you’ll receive even more traffic, which can’t be a bad thing. 😀

  15. Glen Towler (@NZAircraftFan)

    I think Boeing as normal missed a trick when designing the 787 they should made the fuselage wider so you can have a 3 3 3 seating config in the back with out making people feel like sardines. I have never flown on 787 and it looks as Mary said one to avoid

    • Al T.

      Glen, I don’t think Boeing screwed up. The 787 was always meant to be a comfortable 8-abreast. It was the airlines that pushed the 9-abreast configuration. Had Boeing made it a bit wider, airlines would be pushing 10-abreast like they are pushing on the A350.

      Looking at the seat map provided here, it seems nearly half the floor space is used by premium seats. With such a small economy section, moving to an 8-abreast configuration would mean 14 fewer economy seats, or a 6.5% reduction in total seats. And note this reduction would be in the smallest margin fares. So the total revenue loss would be even less per flight. You could probably also remove one row of business seats (a loss of 7) and stick two more rows of 8-across for a net loss of only 5 seats. If the business section often has just few empty seats, me thinks it would be worth it: lose a few premium seats, keep the same number of economy seats and get better passenger feedback.

      I think it’s very rude of airlines to sacrifice PaxEx for possible single-digit improvements to the bottom line.

  16. RaflW

    I am increasingly of the opinion that most airlines will make standard Y so terrible that all but the absolutely cheapest pax will buy up to Y+. The question is, will airlines actually supply enough Y+ seats for us?
    DL just added another row of their less than industry leading extra legroom seats on the A333, 40 seats or 15.4% of Y seating. But it is getting absurd how tight std. coach is, and I think at some point customers will revolt, including perhaps pushing for international minimum width & pitch standards.
    I’m sure the airlines would hate that, but they may bring it upon themselves (while blaming the traveling public for us “insisting” on the lowest possible fare/lowest possible comfort standard).

  17. Layman

    The elephant in the room – the B787 is badly flawed by not catering for 21st century air-travel.

    The A350 is also narrow, but at least has a few additional centimetres to steal a march on it’s rival.

    B787 operators wanting to hang onto their customers will soon start moving the jet to less than 4 hour missions. Having narrower armrests and even suggesting that as an improvement will no longer fly with discerning passengers.

    I would not be surprised if Brussels start to look at Human rights issues on a 9 abreast 787 and start to force more comfortable 8 abreast with a 32 in pitch seats for all flights over 5 hours. Watch for the howls of complaints.

    To all future travelers – go for an A380 – you are guaranteed a comfortable flight.

  18. Raj B

    Improving 787 Economy-Class, Nine-Across Seating

    Here’s how airlines can offer 18″-wide seating in 787 nine-across Economy cabins.

    1) Make all armrests 0.5″ thinner to get an extra 6″.

    2) Reduce aisles to the 16″ regulatory minimum to get an extra 4″.

    This additional 10″ divided by 9 seats will mean 1.1″ more space per seat as measured between armrests.

    And shoulder-level width will increase by almost half an inch per seat, providing 0.75″ more room between passengers.

    Certainly, these crucial gains in Economy comfort are worth any minor inconveniences during boarding or meal service.

  19. Stephen Cheskiewicz

    Just took a British Airways 787 Dreamliner from LHR to PHL in economy. It was the most excruciating 7 hour flight ever. A new low in comfort, requiring passengers to stand ‘and I use this term loosely’ in their row at a 45 degree angle. It was tortuous enough that it should be considered a good replacement to waterboarding. The 787 is a beautiful aircraft, but beauty and design are irrelevant when passengers are packed into an aircraft that is smaller than others in its class. I would never put myself or anyone I care about through the torture chamber that is economy class on a BA 787.

  20. We passengers will have to vote with our bum, and choose only airlines offering decently comfortable seats. In the end, we must prevail, as we pay the airlines for the priviledge. The airlines will listen and act when the see their load factors fall in direct proportion to their airliners’ seat widths. I used to fly Emirates (superb cabin service) until they put 3-4-3 into their B777’s. Now I fly Turkish Airlines (fabulous cabin service) whenever possible, with their 2-4-2 on A330/340’s. Bye-bye Emirates!

    • Seth Miller

      Nope. In fact that’s essentially what is happening today. Fares remain low despite inflation and other costs increasing. In large part because more people are on the plane.

    • Jeff

      in this newsgroup, yes. But, unfortunately, most passengers have no idea what kind of plane they’re on, or the seating plan. I’ve also flown on the 787 (both Business – which is fine, and Economy – which is miserable). But if your only choice is a 787 on BA, a 787 on the same route with VS, a 787 with AA, or a 787 with UA, for example, what is the choice. You can look for a 330 on AA or VS, or a 380 or (for the reasonable future) a 744 on BA or UA to the states, but that’s it. If you can get a 330, that’s great (to the US from the UK that’s either VS or AA (PHL or CLT for now), but there’s not much choice.

  21. Kip

    I just flew the 787 for the first time–Bangkok to Tokyo in economy and what a disappointment after all the hoopla I had been reading about the 787. What a nasty, cramped plane! It’s like a horrible 737 with an extra row of 3 seats. Have NO IDEA what all the shouting was about with this plane. Fat lady next to me and I ended up with about 2/3rds of an already small seat as she sagged over into my space. Eating was an ordeal with so little space. The next leg of my flight was Tokyo to Dulles and what a difference! The plane was a 777 and my partner and I were in 2 seats of a 4 seat row. There was at least 8 inches of empty Jamesspace between my middle seat and the other middle seat and that separation made such a difference! I love the 2-4-3 layout. Almost everyone has just 1 person to go over to get out of their seat. I don’t know why they don’t always use it instead of 3-3-3. I will avoid the 787 at all costs in the future.

  22. Charlie

    What about Thomson aero seating and their cozy suite? The chairman said the seats would be flying very soon?

  23. Having just flown to Kuala Lumpur and back recently in a BA Dreamliner, misnomer for nightmare, I have to say it was the worst flight I have ever endured for comfort or lack of it. After paying £51 extra each to book safety door seats I was shocked to find that I could not even sit squarely in the window seat because my shoulder was so tight to the wall that I was unable to even move my arm to eat.

    This is the worst nightmare flight of all time and the extra profit they made on one flight will be repaid by a lifetime avoidance of there aircraft.

  24. Why not using the overhead bin to put pax on the horizontal……… ah,ah, there seems to be no limit of what the airlines
    are trying to do to cram more people

  25. Dave K

    Does anyone know if the 43B and 43J (window side twin seats in back) have moveable armrest on window side? I am big guy and only way my thighs fit in is if I move the armrest up. I dont get bothered by toilet noise or dont need a big recline.

    Please comment if you know or post pictures of that seat.