Airbus pushes density (again) on A380

More space. Larger overhead bins. Greater comfort. These are all aircraft cabin features that Airbus continues to tout, most recently through the launch of the Airspace cabin interior concept just last week. And yet, despite all the talk, the 11-abreast A380 layout is once again up for discussion and Airbus is pushing it, arguably more than ever, in a presentation given to investors on the very same day that Airspace was unveiled. The outlook for coach (and even some premium) customers will have dimmed a bit, if airlines warm to these ideas.

It is no secret that the A380 has stagnated in the market of late. Airbus is working hard to expand the order book for the super jumbo and it continues to explore ways to improve space utilization on board; more seats means better margins and the airframer knows that it must convince airline customers of even better economics to sell the type. A re-engined “neo” model seems unlikely as does a stretch configuration and so the company is looking for ways to make the existing space “more efficient” and more profitable.

In an investor presentation released last week the company highlighted many “cabin enablers” to help boost the revenue potential for the type. And, while some of them are truly neutral to the customer, the majority are almost certainly downgrades to the passenger experience (#PaxEx).

How to make the A380 more profitable? All that's let is apparently putting a squeeze on passengers

How to make the A380 more profitable? Put a squeeze on passengers. Graphic: Airbus investor presentation

It was almost exactly one year ago that Airbus presented the A380 11-abreast mockup at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg. That went over about as poorly as one would expect, particularly considering the way in which an 18″ seat width was promised – by narrowing the armrests to increase the measurement while not actually adding more personal space. Airbus is not the only firm making that play, which is unfortunate for all passengers, but in the case of the A380 it is especially unfortunate as it creates an incredibly dense layout with more middle seats – who wants the middle seat of a 3-5-3 configuration? – and also significantly reduced comfort at the windows. At that time, the concept was presented as just an option, something an aircraft lessor or two might be interested in. Today it appears to be key to the company’s drive to convince airlines that the A380 is a profit machine.


Narrower armrests and limited space for window seat passengers are just two of the challenges the A380 11-abreast layout presented in the iteration shown last year. Image: John Walton

As for the rest of the aircraft, things don’t get much better in the premium cabins, either. Airbus is suggesting that some of the other benefits the type offers be removed or reduced to further increase density. On the upper deck, sidewall bins exist today because the sidewall curves in too much to comfortably move the seats closer to the wall. The airframer’s marketing slides call for removing that storage to increase revenue.

Airbus slide

Airbus wants to increase density of economy and premium economy on the main deck plus business class upstairs. Graphic: Airbus investor relations presentation

telefonix 300Similarly, the company is calling for an increased density in the Premium Economy cabin, at least on the main deck. Currently Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines offer such, both in a 2-4-2 layout. Airbus’ new marketing effort calls for a 3-3-3 arrangement instead. Other airlines offer Premium Economy on the upper deck in a 2-3-2 layout; Airbus does not seem keen to change that, other than suggesting it move downstairs where greater density can be achieved.

There are some ways in which the “cabin enablers” are arguably passenger neutral. A combined crew rest compartment should not adversely affect passengers. And the alternative stair-galley module (currently in development, not actually offerable yet) should mostly be neutral, though it does raise questions about overall galley space and levels of passenger comfort vis-a-vis catering and room to move during the longhaul flights the A380 is built to serve. The Space-Flex galley was also supposed to be passenger-neutral and that has not proven to be the case in reality.

I’ve flown on the A380 with five different airlines, sampling both economy and premium products. I’ve enjoyed each of those flights immensely. But a significant portion of that enjoyment came from the fact that the offering was comfortable, even as 400-500 other people were on the plane with me. I’ve walked through the Emirates two-class A380 with 600+ seats on board and I believe it to be a surprisingly comfortable layout. Going 11-abreast on the main deck and potentially tighter upstairs as well would almost certainly break down that comfort factor.


Airbus makes the case for the 11-abreast A380’s economics in its presentation to investors

It is the airlines, of course, which ultimately make the choice; not the airframer. And carriers are constantly looking for ways to shave costs and increase revenues. That’s what a good business does. But if they’re not careful they’ll ultimately ruin the goodwill and positive impression the A380 has created in the industry. Passengers love flying the type, according to Airbus data and feedback on social media. But they love it in the current layouts, not one squeezing 10% more seats on board. Airlines must be very careful on that front as to not destroy the well-earned reputation the type has today.


  1. Mike

    The world keeps getting fatter and fatter and the airline industry continues to squeeze people into tighter and tighter spaces. A joke.

  2. Jon

    This article is badly written. As the author correctly notes, it is the airlines which make the layout choice and not Airbus, so why is this point buried at the end of the article? Instead, it tries to make the point that Airbus is somehow insisting that airlines up the capacity via these means, and that this outcome is somehow inevitable. A better report would simply have stated that Airbus is increasing its range of offerings, instead of sensationalising things like this.

    • Seth Miller

      The difference is the way Airbus is marketing the aircraft. Historically it had encouraged airlines to NOT go for the higher density options. Now it is singing a different tune in an effort to bolster sales while not requiring additional CapEx-heavy work such as new engines or a stretch version to reduce CASM.

      And Airbus absolutely has a choice when it comes to marketing the type and pushing for one layout over another.

  3. Jon

    It’s not singing a different tune at all – it is singing many tunes at the same time, as it always has done. Different carriers have different requirements, and it would be foolish for Airbus (or any other airframer) to not try to cover all of these requirements. Airbus is adding to its range of offerings, but not pushing this one over and above the others.

    • Seth Miller

      Really? Because I don’t see Airbus pushing the 10-abreast in the marketing materials here.

      It is disconcerting to be both as an analyst and as a passenger to see the company becoming more aggressive in pushing the higher density option. I think that’s bad for consumers and raises questions about the marketing tales being spun.

      • Jon

        You’re mixing the marketing which is aimed at the general public, and the marketing for the industry. For the simple PR aimed at the general public, of course it emphasises space above all. But to the industry – i.e. the airlines – it has always offered a complete spectrum of choice. Has Airbus been more aggressive in pushing higher capacity to the airlines? Hard to see the evidence for this.

        As for it being bad for consumers – back to the old saying, “you get what you pay for”. Nobody is forcing the option onto anyone. Hardly that some trick is being played out.

  4. Paul Flight

    think there is a need to have a larger update of the A380 interior to maximise the use of space. The overhead bins in my view would not have the capacity and access for 11 abreast seating. might also be problems below as the A380 does not have the cargo capacity as other long haul aircraft

  5. Atul Jain

    There is something called as a LIMIT to the entire game of squeezing more and more pax into cabins and manufacturers and airlines need to understand not to cross that limit. At the same time passengers need to choose wisely with their wallets. Support the carriers who might be a little bit more expensive and help in sustaining the sensible airlines in today’s cut throat skies.

  6. Frequent Traveller

    Senatorial loggying in the US may eventually do away with two infamed airfraft cabin interior features : triple seats installed against a wall panel and pentuples which essentially are the same thing. The point is (1) dangerosity from lack of free egress to an aisle for the passenger and (2) adverse ergonomics for the (a) Flight Attendant or (b) for the Cabin Cleaner. The ultimate goal of the Lobbying is to make sure that no seat in an aircraft cabin shall be more than one seat away from the safety of an adjacent aisle. The immediate downside if a Law is passed as proposed is that the following cross-sections would be coined ILLEGAL in the US in the future (except as provided under the ‘Grand-Father Benefits’ clause) :

    3+3 on the Boeing NSA or the Airbus A30X next generation feeders
    3+3+3 on new WB designs
    2+5+2 on new WB designs

    The present “interest” @ Airbus to display the A380 with 3+5+3 or @ Boeing to show the 777 with 3+4+3 is not to be interpreted as any current “marketing PUSH” but rather as a protection – prudently establishing the required ‘condition precendent’ for the Grand-Father clause to apply – one never knows what the future will bring ? Once put on record, these crazy inhuman interiors may be forgotten by the OEMs and will sink into safe oblivion where they belong … unless forced into reality by some hard-discount madman operator ?!

    • Seth Miller

      Roughly zero chance of such a law taking effect in the near future.

      And you should be honest about the fact that you’re still trying to convince the world that your product for a multi-aisle narrow-body seating is part of your motivation for these comments.

  7. Hi Seth, how’re things going in Hamburg AIX ? Yes, I was there in Hamburg myself in 2010 and 2011, blue eyed and confident with my H2XQR Series brochures … yes, the Grand’Father-clause is my worst obstacle, as is Nostalgia : cabin interior Psychologists (sometimes they’re called Retail Psychologists) are aware that to market their higher-yield Premium or E+ products, the best strategy is to make life MISERABLE for Y-class passengers … the more inhumane the cabin design in globetrotter-class, the higher proportion of passengers do actually migrate to E+ or Business, where yields per square meter of floor area are from 15 % upwards higher. Punish your passenger, he or she will eat out of your hand ?! Brutal Marketing or BUA (business as usual) ? I don’t know but I find that OEMs themselves aren’t entirely transparent in the way they go about designing cabin LOPAs. Frequent Traveller offers to decode some of the acronyms for Nostalgia. Strictly speaking, (3+3) single aisle isn’t necessary, you can make (as much, if not more) money doing things differently. It’s not something far-fetched, it’s not anything ‘visionary’ … but the difficulty is to create an “ECHO” ie getting the message relayed by the professional Media. Mary herself wrote some very good stuff about the Twin Aisle narrow-body in 2010/11 but it probably backfired, drawing Airbus irr upon FlightGlobal. Market observers, analysts and commentators such as yourself could play a more active role in promoting Social Progress in air transport : better Safety, improved ergonomics and better comfort for the travelling Public are worth taking some professional risks, is my opinion ?

  8. R H Hastings

    So, can we conclude the A380 is doomed?

    Here we read Airbus is pushing higher densities to make the jet more operationally attractive, but that very act could make passengers uncomfortably squeezed to the extent the jet looses its attractiveness.

    Catch 22 or a slow strangling?