Op-Ed: Airframers can’t shift all responsibility for narrowing seats

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In January 2015, RGN published an article entitled “Why I tell people to avoid flying on a 787“. Two and a half years later, the piece remains one of RGN’s most perennially read — and commented upon — articles. Indeed, over a hundred passengers have expressed their agreement, solidarity and relief that they were not the only ones to find the much-vaunted aircraft tight in the 3-3-3 economy class configuration that most airlines operate.

One frequent counterpoint to the commentary, however, is that the narrow seats as found on a nine-abreast 787 or ten-abreast 777 are the fault of the airlines, not the airframer. The logic is that airlines have a choice of what kind of seats to select on their Dreamliners. Some (well, one: JAL) choose comfort over density. On the face of it, that is a tempting assertion — from the airlines’ point of view, anyway.

But the fact is that Boeing and Airbus cannot wash their hands of the matter like some sort of PaxEx Pontius Pilate. Both companies have designed their aircraft — and let’s be clear, these are conscious decisions made by top-notch professionals within the last thirty years — to give airlines a particular set of binary choices on their widebodies.

While new seats can go some way to improving PaxEx, they’re not a panacea. Image: LIFT by EnCore

And the choices offered by Boeing and Airbus are different.

In discussing them, let’s talk about four different categories of seat:

  • A: relatively wide
  • B: relatively comfortable
  • C: uncomfortably narrow
  • D: ultra-narrow

These categories can be assigned to fuselage cross-sections much more easily than they can seat widths, because seat width is a number which can be fudged because there’s no standard way of measuring it.

The lack of a width standard (to a much greater extent than the problem of comparing pitch in a highly engineered #PaxEx world where new slimline seats can feel roomier than older models) means that the width of the seat as stated by the airframer, airline or seatmaker here is less useful than how many people are being packed into each row. Without a standard width measurement, seatmakers can, to use a real-world example, say they’ve packed an 18”-wide seat onto a 737, but only because the armrest is risibly narrow, or the shoulder space is right up against a curved sidewall.

Let’s look more deeply at what the layouts mean in practice, with both widebody and narrowbody examples from aircraft currently in production.

Type A relatively wide layouts would be, for example, on a ten-abreast Airbus A380, nine-abreast Boeing 777 or Airbus A350, eight-abreast Boeing 787, seven-abreast Boeing 767, or a five-abreast Bombardier CSeries. These are well-above average seats that most knowledgeable passengers aim for when in economy.

A nine abreast 777 is a Type A configuration. Image: China Southern

Type B’s relatively comfortable layouts look like an eight-abreast A330/A340 cabin, or six-across an A320 family aircraft (on an airline that hasn’t chosen the fast-boarding wider aisle option like Northwest and easyJet did). These are the second-best option.

Type C layouts are uncomfortably narrow, like a ten-abreast Boeing 777 or nine-abreast 787, or (to a slightly lesser extent) the Boeing 737 six-abreast cross-section. These are aircraft that people who are savvy about #PaxEx and who care about economy seat size steer away from wherever possible.

Type D ultra-narrow layouts, meanwhile, are a ten-abreast A350, nine-abreast A330/A340, or eight-abreast 767. These are, so far, usually charter, ultra-low-cost, leisure-only layouts, like Air Caraïbes, AirAsia X, Air Transat, Cebu Pacific, Philippine Airlines’ old A330-300, and so on. They’re definitely only acceptable if paying bottom dollar for a flight.

As an aside, I could also be persuaded that there may also be a Type C+ seat, to take into account the ten-abreast Boeing 747 that was long the international economy standard, but it’s important to note that the 747 was originally envisaged as a very comfortable nine-abreast aircraft (which would be perhaps a Type A+) and numerous airlines selected layouts like 3-4-2 for comfort, before settling on the tighter configuration.

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As for the eleven-abreast Airbus A380 proposal, it suffers from the two key problems of foot space by the window and a centre section of five seats, and if created would likely end up as a Type D seat for those reasons.

The bottom line, though is that Airbus doesn’t offer any Type C layouts, steering airlines to really bite the bullet and consciously choose a really uncomfortable Type D configuration or stick with either the very good Type A or pretty good Type B options. I’ll call these A-D or B-D choices.

Boeing, however, offers the option of a Type C layouts on all its current widebody fuselages, which has prompted airlines to select them over the type A configurations. These are A-C choices.

The ten-abreast 777 cross-section, like the nine-abreast 787, is an uncomfortably narrow Type C experience. Image: American Airlines

It’s notable that the 767, Boeing’s last A-D choice (since a few airlines do operate 2-4-2 cabins on the 767), remains one of the most popular aircraft among passengers.

Over the short and medium term, Boeing is already at work defining the middle-of-market 797, which has the opportunity hopefully (from a passenger experience standpoint) to be an A-D choice, or at least B-D. Airbus, too, will almost certainly be designing the aircraft that will span the space between its A320neo family replacement narrowbody and the A350.

Both companies have choices to make. In an increasingly mobile, social and vocal world, passengers will be watching.

There’s a point at which there’s just no option but to increase seat width for comfort. Image: John Walton

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16 Comments

  1. Henk Ombelet

    John

    Interesting article. I don’t quite agree with your typology. I don’t have accurate measurements of the cabin widths, so just going by the Wikipedia data and the number of seats across you could argue that the A330 is actually a Type A (for 8 across) and Type C for 9 across. Or if you don’t like that, the 777 could be a Type D for 10 across.

    But these are all theoretical choices. If you look at the actually installed fleet, and using our database, it turns out that on the in service fleet, 89% of the B767, 91% of the A330, 98% of the A350, and 100% of the A380 have a Type A configuration – if you indulge me in categorising the A330 8 abreast as a Type 8.

    But the on the 787 and 777 the figures are different. On the 777 a Type A config is on 51% of the fleet, and on the 787 it is only on 7% of the fleet – hence no one like flying the 787 in economy, except JAL.

    So, what actually seems to have happened so far is that where airlines have this choice between a Type A and a Type C, they have increasingly gone for the Type C’s, but where the choice is between Type A/B and D they have so far gone for A/B.

    • John Walton
      Author

      Hi Henk, and thanks for the comment — I’m always interested to hear about the Ascend database! I think you’ve actually just restated the thesis of the post there, though, regardless of whether we agree that there’s such a thing as a Type B longhaul cabin. Perhaps obviously given the fact that I created a category, I think that there is, and I suggest you go hunt down those measurements.

      I’m surprised that there are that many 767s with eight-abreast, though. Are you perhaps counting the cargo fleet as “not 7-abreast”?

        • John Walton
          Author

          No misunderstanding — I’m surprised that there are as many as 11% of passenger 767s with eight-abreast. That would need to be…what, some 85 aircraft? Which operators, and are you definitely excluding the non-passenger aircraft from the total? I can imagine that cargo + 8-abreast might = 11%.

          • RaflW

            Not to be mucking about too much, but similar to the previous NWA decision on the A320 to have 737-similar seats for a wider aisle, I believe there are 767 and A330 operators who, mysteriously to me, chose a 17.5 or 17.3 inch seat while keeping the type-A seat set counts.
            Any thoughts on why, and on whether at least having the lower total density perhaps somewhat offsets the (needless?) shoulder squeeze?
            Of course, all the above may be misperception on my part since, as you note in the main article, there isn’t a true seat-width standard.

  2. Howard M

    Great article! Could NOT agree more; Boeing, especially, with what I simply refer to as “flying abominations”, the ten abreast (3-4-3) 777s that United packs nearly as many passengers into these despicable planes as the soon to be retired 747-400s (364-66 on the new 777-300s and the reconfigured 777-200s), with four to six FEWER lavatories, too, than the 747s, or even worse, the approximately 450 passengers packed into Air Canada’s 777-300s, is every bit as culpable as the airlines for these disgusting, and possibly dangerous and unsafe 3-4-3 configurations.

    Sure, they have demonstrated that the planes can be evacuated at even higher configurations, but that was a long, long, long time ago, and under vastly different realities than the present when checked baggage fees result in a larger and heavier carry-on bags being brought onboard, plus the widespread use of personal devices, and the many usb and charging cords that could easily create problems in an unforeseen emergency.

    This, combined with the ridiculously narrow aisles, seems to be the “acceptable risk” Boeing and airlines who choose this atrocious configuration are willing to accept — until, of course, the unthinkable happens and they’re held accountable by trial lawyers.

    Of course, here’s hoping we do NOT have to wait until such an unfortunate situation arises to address this problem.

    Alas, just as the Stop sign or a traffic light is NOT installed until the inevitable tragedy happens, here, too, nothing will be done until there’s an accident, and investigators document how many lives were lost simply because Boeing normalized the 3-4-3 seating configurations from simulated evacuations done in the last century all in the name of driving profits by offering airlines the “binary options” discussed in your article.

    Like you, I AVOID both the 3-4-3 777s and 3-3-3 787s, and strongly encourage others in my family and friends to do the same whenever possible.

    In fact, my partner, who travels far more often than I do, and who frequently flies transcons in the USA when he’s not flying to Asia or Europe for work, recently decided to fly Delta to SFO later this week instead of United from NYC in order to fly on Delta’s 767s instead of the hated 3-4-3 777s he flew both ways on his last trip six weeks ago.

    Even in Economy Plus, and on the aisle, he found the seats ridiculously tight, and the constant bumps from others passing by in the narrow aisle to be disruptive and unpleasant. And he’s all of 5’4″ and apart from the limited mobility in one of his legs resulting from Polio he had as a very young child, is otherwise in shape. In short, he’s neither tall nor wide…yet he found the 3-4-3 configuration on United’s 777s — even in E+ — to be unpleasant enough to switch to Delta, and its 767-300, for his upcoming trip this week.

    And he did this after experiencing the 777s on United for himself…since, of course, he’s a fashion designer, and NOT an avgeek like me, so he didn’t think it would be as bad as I warned him it would be…and just had to find this out on his own!

    But, comfort is one thing…my concerns go way beyond comfort alone when it comes to the “densified” Economy cabins on Boeing’s 777s and 787s. I have yet to fly either plane in these densified configurations, and will continue to do my best to AVOID them in the future, as I have already in the past for other trips.

    As to Airbus, I do prefer Jetblue’s A320s over all other similarly sized narrow body aircraft, followed by A330s, which have 2-4-2 configurations in their Economy cabins.

    I have to fly an A380, but would AVOID any 3-5-3 eleven abreast seating plan, were that to become a reality.

    Of course, Jetblue’s Embraer 190s with their 2-2 configurations, and 32″ pitch is also awesome for Economy travel.

    I love Southwest, too, even if that requires flying 737s…of course, their 737-800s are better than the -700s (ah, if only they could get the -700s to be like the -800s…)…but Southwest also offers so much more that the trade-off for the inferior Boeing versus Jetblue’s A320 is acceptable.

    But sorry, Boeing fans, fact is, the narrower seats and aisles DO make a difference…and Boeing is NOT blameless…they certainly could’ve designed the 787 to more comfortably fit nine seats across but didn’t…and pretending that a 777 in any way, shape, or form is a 747 is exactly that — PRETENDING.

    JMHO, of course!

  3. Howard M

    Oh, forgot to note that United’s soon to be retired 747-400s seat 374 passengers and have 14 lavatories.

    By comparison, United’s new 777-300ERs are configured for 366 passengers and have ten lavatories (or FOUR fewer lavs than the 744s, with just eight fewer pax)…while the newly reconfigured 777-200s flown on transcons Newark to/from LAX and SFO are 364 pax and just eight (yes, 8!), lavatories– which is six FEWER lavs than the 744s but only ten fewer pax!!!

  4. Howard M

    One final post script: Delta announced earlier this summer that they’re keeping the nine abreast 3-3-3 configurations in the main/Economy cabins of their relatively small fleet of 777s during the upcoming refresh…here’s hoping they also keep the pitch at the 31-32″ shown on seatguru and do NOT cram in an extra row or two and go to 30-31″ instead…nine abreast at 31″-32″ an 18.5″ wide seats would definitely make for a superior Economy hard product versus any airline using 3-4-3 ten abreast seating on a 777 or 3-3-3 on a 787…

    Fliers would be wise to use Delta’s 777s whenever possible…or, of course, lose it… 🙁

  5. I really hate flying 10 across on a 777. The funny thing is flew on in both 10 and 9 across by accident due to me missing my connection to Wellington NZ. I was booked on a Air NZ 777 from BNE to AKL and it was so cramped the leg room was fine but I stuck in the middle seat next to the window. My previous flight was on Virgin Aus and they have 9 across and difference is amazing such more pleasant to fly on. The 757 is also famous for being so narrow and painful with such narrow seats down the back. I prefer to fly Airbus any day apart from Qantas and their A380s only because the seat pitch is awful and you can’t blame Airbus for that.

  6. reeves35

    Hopefully SQ will announce that they intend to keep 9 abreast on their upcoming 777s and 8 abreast on their 787-10s. If an airline with a reputation like SQ choose the more comfortable layouts, it will send a clear signal to the industry as to what a proper full-service Economy configuration look like and hopefully shame pretenders like CX and EK to follow suit. If they alternatively succumb and go for the tighter configurations, I fear all is probably lost for long-haul Economy travel and the difference between full-service and LCC will be insignificant particularly on the main culprit airliners coming from Boeing.

  7. tortugamon

    quote: “Type C layouts are uncomfortably narrow, like a ten-abreast Boeing 777 or nine-abreast 787, or (to a slightly lesser extent) the Boeing 737 six-abreast cross-section. These are aircraft that people who are savvy about #PaxEx and who care about economy seat size steer away from wherever possible.”

    There is more to passenger experience than seat width. For thin individuals with long legs, seat pitch could be more important. For some, seat entertainment is important. For others it may be food and quality of service. I know the title of the article is about seat width but statements like above make seat width the primary driver of paxex; its not.

  8. Vladimir

    You classify 3-4-3 B747 as C+. I have two very different experiences with longhaul flights on two different jumbos.

    1) BA’s 744, LHR-MEX. I was rebooked to this flight because LH, from which I booked my tickets, crapped to its pants and went to strike. BA’s jumbo was old (built in 1994) with 3-4-3 layout in economy with oldtimer seats with thick padding and rather comfortable seatbacks. But they had a significant drawback – seatwidth was obviously insufficient (I guess no more than 17.5″ and likely close to 17″) compared to 777 with 3-3-3. I felt rather packed in my window seat and my seatmate from the middle seat involuntarely bumped me with his elbows several times during the flight. But, fortunately, this 11-hr flight was completely day-time and I survived. I think, BA’s old 744 must be classified as C with a very little “plus”. They don’t have any advantages over typical 3-4-3 777’s excepting wider aisles (which is better for cabin crew).

    2) LH’s 748 MEX-FRA on the way back, rather new plane (built in 2013) with the same 3-4-3 layout. But when I was settled in my economy window seat I immediatly understood that BA’s jumbo was heaven compared to LH’s. LH’s economy seats in 748 are absolutely terrible: they are ultra narrow (it felt like no more than 16.5″), thin with almost no padding and absolutely uncomfortable seatback. The legroom, due to thin seatback, was a bit better than BA’s, but this advantage was destroyed by a big IFE box under the seat. The 10-hr flight, 2/3 of which was red-eye, was an absolutely horror and nightmare, and, as addition to it all, the crew were rude and impolite and catering was very poor and left me hungry. My only wish during this flight was to tear this flying torture chamber to shreds and jump to the ocean. By the time of arrival into FRA I felt absolutely squashed and humiliated. I can’t imagine how can economy pax survive in this 748 on the flights like FRA-EZE (13+ hr entirely red-eye). LH’s 748, despite having wider aisles, must undoubtely be classified as D alike AirAsiaX’s or Cebu Pacific’s 333.

  9. Yvan

    John

    You mentioned the thinning of armrests on the 737 seats to get 18 inch seat width, but you have the A350 as type A when they have the same thin armrests as well (per Airbus ACAP) to achieve 18 inch seat width. How can that be? And don’t you think its a bit unfair to label the 787 as an aircraft to avoid when the A350 seat is only 0.5 inches wider in total across 3 seats? (59.6 for the 787 and 60.11 for the A350). Thanks

  10. RaflW

    My honey and I flew a 757 down and A320 back on about a 3.5-4 hour sector recently. There are things I like about the 757, but I was slightly shocked by how much more comfortable the A320 seat width* was now that Delta has refitted the ex-NWA cabins.

    There are endless arguments on various comment boards whether .7 inches makes a difference. It does, in my middle-aged, middle-expanded opinion.

    The thought of even a short transatlantic on a 757 seems very unappealing knowing that A321LRs will soon be an option!

    *Std 30″ pitch looked terrible, however, though we were oblivious in the exit row.

  11. Percy Smith

    Absolutely agree with this article. I used to say Airbus builds aircraft for people, Boeing builds aircraft for airlines. Now I just link to this article.

    A further observation is that this is inevitable – from my Economics 101 (even beancounters have to do Economics) a competitive market means you will have a homogenous product among competitors.

    So, sadly, airlines will increasingly find flying Boeing in Type A increasingly infeasible.
    I’m not so cynical as to think airlines buy Boeing to torture passengers in the back while still taking their money, but I do blame Boeing for handing out guns to airlines and then refrain “guns don’t kill people”.

    On another note about 747 – I am of that age to have literally grown up while flying 747s (from age 3 to about 21 as an émigré), but I wonder are we fixated on the 747 10-abreast configuration as the “old standard” (probably not gold standard) against which we compare all future configurations on? It seems to be what is motivating us to say 747 is right in the middle between Types B and C.

    • Vladimir

      Boeing has only two types of aircraft for people – 777 with 3-3-3 layout and 767 with 2-3-2 layout. Other Boeings along with 777 with 3-4-3 and 767 with 2-4-2 are sardine cans. Only JAL 787s with 2-4-2 are exception from this rule.

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